Israel offer Scotland a potentially comfortable path to the Euros
In typical UEFA fashion, Scotland finally found out the identity of their play-off opposition. With an 11am UK time draw, Israel were drawn as Scotland’s play-off opponents in a typically laborious UEFA ceremony, with all the pomp and circumstance of a wedding.
Be that as it may, this does feel like the ideal draw for Scotland, with their other potential opposition being Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria; but beating Israel will not guarantee the Tartan Army immediate entry to Euro 2020. Should they beat Israel, they will enter into more laborious UEFA-sanctioned international football as they will play one of either Norway or Serbia in a play-off final in an absurdly long winner-finally-takes-it-all match to take a place at Euro 2020.
Prior to the draw on Thursday, which marked the end of Euro 2020 group stage qualification, Scotland ultimately finished third in their group, after wins against Cyprus and Kazakhstan. Steve Clarke and his side were at the mercy of player withdrawals that marred the previous reigns of Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan, including the absence of the captain Andy Robertson and Arsenal refusing to allow fellow left-back Kieran Tierney to join up with his national team for fear of injury. Be that as it may, Clarke restored some pride to what has been an abject qualification campaign. They took revenge against Kazakhstan in what was a grovelling and dismal 3-0 defeat in March, as well as defeating a Cyprus side that were in no mood to lose without a fight.
Perhaps credit should go to the two sides that did qualify from group I. A dominant Belgian team who completed qualification with a 100% win record and a Russian side that lost only to Belgium, and who also seem underrated in the current crop of European national sides, but Scotland did finish third in the group. A modicum of pride restored? Perhaps, but Clarke and his team must now turn their attention to what feels very much like a winnable game against Israel at Hampden Park.
Scotland and Israel previously met in the UEFA Nations League last year, losing the first game in Haifa 2-1, but the Scots secured their status as group winners in a 3-2 revenge victory over Israel at Hampden Park last November.
As for now, domestic football will return to the forefront. UEFA’s playoffs don’t take place until March 26. The finals across all four UEFA paths then take place five days later on March 31. Once again UEFA try to generate interest and spectacle into qualification for their Championships but instead have created an overblown, wheezing beast of a play-off that has confused fan and pundit alike. Whilst it is good to see Scotland given a chance to rectify their international tournament absence, UEFA have sullied it in a way that only they could. Not to mention the confusion in last year’s Nations League fixtures.
UEFA’s follies aside, should Scotland beat Israel, Norway and Serbia will play one another to determine Scotland’s final opposition before the tournament proper. Aleksandar Mitrović has been in great form for his country, scoring 10 goals in their qualifying campaign, just one shy of Israel’s Eran Zahavi, who has 11, whilst Norway were only four points behind second place Sweden. My money is on Serbia to beat Norway. They were at last years’ World Cup in Russia and with Mitrović scoring regularly for club and country (12 goals for Fulham so far this season), I think that they will overpower the Norwegians.
Not to mention that Hampden Park will play host to games for next year’s Euro 2020. Next year’s tournament marks 60 years since the tournament began, where the Soviet Union were crowned champions in the Parc des Princes and as such UEFA are hosting the tournament all over Europe.
In short, Scotland have arrived in the last chance saloon, and with just two games between them and the chance to finally appear in an international tournament, they have everything to play for.