On the latest Scottish Football Podcast, Andy Walker and Kris Boyd assess Scotland’s Euro 2020 chances and preview the blockbuster return of the Scottish Premiership.
It has been a monumental international break for Scotland, reaching their first tournament finals in 22 years with a dramatic penalty shootout win against Serbia last week.
Attention will now turn to the delayed European Championships next summer, and Sky Sports pundit Boyd analysed how Scotland could fare in Group D, with two games scheduled to be played at Hampden Park.
He told the Scottish Football Podcast: “The big thing was to get there and we managed to do that, but there’s no point in going there just to make up the numbers. We’ll make it very difficult for teams, we’re hard to break down, but we have got pace that can hurt teams and I think that’s the way it will go.
“We dominated the ball for large periods of the last three international games but coming up against the Czech Republic, England and Croatia is going to be totally different.
“The Czech Republic were in our Nations League group, we’ve seen signs that they’re a good team and they’ve caused problems to a lot of bigger nations than ourselves so I don’t think that’s just going to be a forgone conclusion. Yes, if we get the fans back in and a full Hampden behind us, what a difference that will make.
“England will take care of itself but Croatia, it’s jinxed us saying they’ve never beaten us [as an independent nation] because when you look at the players they’ve got, it’s going to be another very difficult game. But at Hampden, you just never know what could happen.”
There is now an opportunity for in-form Scottish players, who may not have been called up to the senior team before, to make their case for a Euro 2020 squad spot.
Walker explained: “I think we look strong in midfield. Stuart Armstrong can’t get a game [for Scotland] and he’s playing for Southampton and scoring goals in the Premier League. That shows you we have some really good options in there.
“I’m looking at Lewis Ferguson and Ross McCrorie at Aberdeen. Can they force themselves in and improve their level of performance? Ferguson has gone from Hamilton to Aberdeen and made a name for himself, scoring goals, I think he could score more and his level of performance and consistency is improving so he might be one that is in Clarke’s mind.
“Can Kevin Nisbet keep scoring [for Hibernian] at the rate he’s going at? Can Tony Watt score for Motherwell and improve his game? It’s a great thing for every manager to say to any young Scottish lad between now and the end of the season ‘there’s an opportunity there, look where these guys started and where they are now’.
“If you can turn it on and be consistent, play at a good level regularly, then who knows, there might be one or two options open for guys like that.
“We all have to get behind Steve Clarke. We must understand that he knows best, he’s got us to a finals for the first time in 22 years and we need to give him a bit of time to get his own ideas across. He’s already found a way of getting Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson into the team and we look good, we look solid, we look strong so whatever he does from middle to front, we have to believe that what he’s doing is the right way for us.”
The international players will now return to their clubs and for those in the Scottish Premiership, it is a huge weekend of matches with the top four playing one another. Hibernian welcome Celtic on Saturday (kick-off 3pm) before league leaders Rangers welcome Aberdeen to Ibrox on Sunday, live on Sky Sports from 11am (kick-off 12pm).
It will be another chance for Hibs to prove themselves in a big game, with Boyd telling the Scottish Football Podcast: “I think Hibs have shown that they can cause the best team in the league so far [Rangers] problems and that on their day, they can compete.
“Celtic have had a lot of players away on international duty and Hibs will look at this as an opportunity to show that yes, their form has stuttered a little bit recently, but they’ll be confident that they can get something.
“I don’t think Jack [Ross] needs to prove anything because the way he speaks about his team, he fully believes in them. For me, it’s whether the players believe they can go and perform at that level. Whether their mindset changes when they go into big games, I don’t know.
“But when Jack Ross speaks, he’s confident in the way he puts his message across. I don’t think Jack is going to change whether it is someone in the bottom three or Rangers or Celtic, or Hearts for that matter. So it’s about the players have the belief that they can go and perform at the level that Jack Ross knows they can perform at.”
Walker also thinks Hibernian have what they need to perform better on the big stage, adding: “There’s no doubt that Jack Ross has improved Hibs, but against Hearts in the [Scottish Cup] semi-final and in other big games, I think they can do better and they’ve got the qualities to do better.
“They’ve got pace in the team, they’ve got a really good midfield player in Alex Gogic, who stops opposition attacks, feeds the ball to those who can do a bit more. With Nisbet, they’ve got someone who knows the way to goal. This would be a great opportunity for him to get a headline goal and show that he can score on the big occasions.
“I was very impressed with Celtic at Fir Park, they created a good number of chances. In Mohamed Elyounoussi, they had someone who bounced back really well for the criticism he received from the European tie when he was caught on his phone – he certainly answered the call at Fir Park and got a hat-trick there.”
It’s also a tough test for Rangers as they look to extend their nine-point lead over Celtic, facing a third-place Aberdeen. They have only lost two league games this season, although one was on the opening weekend to Steven Gerrard’s side.
Boyd told the Scottish Football Podcast: “I fancy Rangers to win this one. McCrorie not being able to play is a massive loss for Aberdeen, he’s been brilliant for them, but him not playing is going to have a massive impact. Aberdeen will always make it difficult but let’s not get away from it, it’s first against third and it is the big game of the weekend.
“To play for Rangers, you have to be super fit and willing to run with and without the ball and cause players problems. That’s one thing that Rangers will continue to do, whether it’s in the wide areas or with [Scott] Arfield and [Joe] Aribo in the middle of the pitch, they’ve got so many options now going forward and defensively, they look sound enough.
“It’s going to take a big performance to stop Rangers with the way they’re playing at this moment in time but we’ve been here before, coming off the back of an international break that there can usually be some hiccups. Steven Gerrard will have to get his squad focused on the match, they know how important it is but Rangers will be confident going into this because of the last few performances.”