Publication:

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - 2021-10-10

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THIS WAS 90 CHAOTIC MINUTES OF LIFE-AFFIRMING MADNESS

World Cup 2022

By Gary Keown

‘90 MINUTES OF MADNESS’ BILLY GILMOUR and Callum McGregor. Without question, two of the most capable and intelligent players in the national set-up. Guys worth building a midfield around any day of the week. So why, when Steve Clarke picks them and plays them as the heart of the central area behind an advanced John McGinn, do Scotland somehow fashion a performance that effectively misses them out for long spells? Last night’s thrilling, heart-bursting win over Israel threatened, for way too long, to become a story dominated by shooting yourself in the foot. A catastrophe created by bad decisions, needless free-kicks, shambolic defending and one absolutely dreadful penalty. Sure, it seems petty to pick on flaws in the set-up after a crescendo like that offered by Scott McTominay’s right thigh and chest and a victory that really puts Scotland in the driving seat to finish second in Group F and secure a place in the World Cup play-offs. It’s just that you feel it doesn’t have to be like this. This doesn’t have to be a perpetual case of living on your nerves, riding rollercoasters. Fun as it can be when it all works out in your favour. We have players with the character, shown in digging out last night’s win, and the talent to aim for far more. This was 90 chaotic minutes of life-affirming madness in front of a packed-out Hampden. Hugely entertaining. Agonisingly nerve-wracking. Yet, you cannot help but feel quite needless. We have better players than Israel, guys playing at higher levels. It is just so exasperating that we were just completely unable to set the tone in the initial stages — to put down a marker, as the football persons say — by commandeering the centre of the field. Gilmour and McGregor are ready-made to take the ball, keep the ball and use it effectively. Yet, we failed to do it early on. Getting the ball on the deck and moving the ball through midfield seemed an alien concept for substantial periods. Something to have a go at every now and then when the long balls, often up the flank, weren’t getting much joy. This unfortunate habit of lumping the ball up the park without, it appears, any great purpose played a big part in the side’s downfall against the Czech Republic in that deeply-disappointing Euro 2020 opener. Clarke has overcome his natural reserve and actually selects Gilmour now, though. He has a uniquely talented string-puller embedded in his line-up. A generational talent. So use him. Play to his strengths. Play to our strengths. Be confident in the process. We started on the front foot with a clever attack up the right that brought a shot on goal from Che Adams after 43 seconds. The platform was there to lay out the framework upon which the game could progress. Instead, we threw a wobbly and came desperately close to losing the plot altogether. The irony is that, in the one notable occasion in the first half in which we did endeavour to play the game properly, we scored. McGregor and Gilmour got hold of the ball in our own half, Gilmour dinked a ball forward that still made its way to Kieran Tierney despite taking a deflection and we all remember what happened from there thanks to clever play from Andy Robertson and Adams and that exquisite finish from McGinn. It was a goal full of composure and purpose. That’s just what we need to aim towards for 90 minutes rather than 90 seconds. Of course, the second half was far better. Maybe it’s because the rain stopped. More likely is the fact that Gilmour very clearly took it upon himself to try and grab hold of the occasion, even making a run down the right wing before putting a dangerous low cross into the area. McTominay was brilliant after the break, too. It was fitting he should score the winner. He is so good on the ball, with such an engine, that you always wonder whether he is being wasted on the right of a back three when he is a much more effective midfielder for Manchester United. These are all things to conjure with as the attempt to streamline the current Scotland team continues. Certainly, this win over Israel keeps momentum building. Too often a big night like a Belgrade or a Wembley is followed up by something disappointing. Well, we’ve built on last month’s triumph in Austria, somehow, with another big, big win. Let’s just focus now on developing a pattern of playing, making games pan out on our terms. And cutting down on the daft stuff. You do sense Clarke is still trying to get the mechanics right, figure out the best way to use the talent at his disposal and fine-tune what seems a workable 3-5-2 formation. Okay, maybe the no-nonsense presence of Grant Hanley in defence would have been a preferred option, but this was about as strong a starting XI as he could have picked. What he does, then, about the standard of some of the defending is anyone’s guess. Nathan Patterson gets caught out early doors and, before long, Jack Hendry has given away a silly foul on Eran Zahavi to concede the free-kick that led to the opener. A minute after McGinn has put us back on level terms, McTominay gives away another silly free-kick and almost everyone stands ball-watching as Munas Dabbur bundles the rebound home from the set-piece. Even when we had got on top, the rearguard went to sleep again on the hour, allowing Zahavi a free header from point-blank range that Craig Gordon did well to save. Former Hearts coach Austin MacPhee, now at Aston Villa, has been brought in to work on set-pieces. Some major work is required on defending them, on the basis of this game. In terms of making things happen, maybe we’ll learn on another evening why our centreforward Lyndon Dykes is taking long throws and McTominay, tall and aggressive, is occasionally taking corners. Oh, yes, and tell big Lyndon to forget about the spot-kicks in future, too. He got away with that sclaff from the 12-yard mark which earned a crucial win in Austria. When Israeli keeper Ofir Marciano decided he wasn’t going to pick a side, though, the QPR man’s goose was cooked. He made up for it, though, sticking out his boot and getting it to the ball ahead of Ofri Arad to make it 2-2. They all made up for it. We deserved to win. We deserve to be heading for the play-offs, barring any unforeseen accidents. There’s a good team in there. Of that there is no doubt. It just needs more concentration, more confidence and a commitment to letting these most talented players be free and express themselves. Here’s to next time. And a victory that doesn’t leave you needing a lie down in a dark room afterwards.

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