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Can Scotland's women avoid Ukraine World Cup double blow?

Scotland's Abi Harrison scores against Ukraine
Abi Harrison’s late equaliser rescued a point for Scotland against Ukraine at Hampden
Women’s World Cup qualifying Group B: Ukraine v Scotland
Venue: Stadion Miejski, Rzeszow Date: Friday, 24 June Kick-off: 19:15 BST
Coverage: Watch on BBC Alba & BBC iPlayer, listen on BBC Radio Scotland DAB/810MW/online, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

Twenty-three days after their male counterparts ended Scotland’s Qatar 2022 finals dream, will Ukraine’s female team inflict a damaging blow to the chances of Pedro Martinez Losa leading his side to Australia and New Zealand 2023?

Following a delayed date and venue switch because of Russia’s invasion of the hosts’ homeland, Scotland head to Stadion Miejski in Rzeszow in the south east of Poland on Friday.

The Scots sit second in Europe’s World Cup qualifying Group B behind runaway leaders Spain and within touching distance of securing a play-off spot, but standing in their way are a Ukraine side who came close to a shock November win in Glasgow, where Abi Harrison rescued a point for the hosts in stoppage time.

Ukraine lost 4-2 in Hungary four days later, but a win over Scotland would revive their chances and set up a tight three-team finish. Here’s what is at stake…

Permutations favour visitors

It should all be pretty straightforward for Scotland should they win, or even draw, on Friday. Lose and it becomes a tad more complicated.

Beat Ukraine and they will move nine points clear of their fourth-placed hosts – and four ahead of third-top Hungary.

That would rule the Ukrainians out of the running as, although they would be able to match Scotland’s points total, the head-to-head record would favour Martinez Losa’s side.

That would leave Hungary. But, even if they were to deliver Ukraine a second successive defeat in Rzeszow four days later, the Hungarians would then have to spring an almighty shock away to Spain in September to overtake the Scots.

Even if they achieve that, Hungary would then have to hope Martinez Losa’s side do the unthinkable and lose away to group minnows Faroe Islands, where even a point would take the visitors through on that head-to-head record again. That cushion should also be enough for the Scots even if they draw with Ukraine.

Lose in Poland, however, and Scotland could be left biting their fingernails in case Ukraine beat Hungary and then take anything in Spain. Even if Ukraine lose in Spain, it could all come down to goal difference and how many they and the Scots win by in their respective visits to the Faroes.

All clear? Martinez Losa’s side can save us all the arithmetical conundrums by winning on Friday.

Improving Ukraine, shell-shocked Scots

Scotland's Caroline Weir and Erin Cuthbert
Caroline Weir and Erin Cuthbert add top-tier quality Ukraine cannot match

So what are Scotland’s chances against Ukraine?

Well, on paper they should be good considering Ukraine are currently ranked 34th in the world, 11 places below Scotland.

However, November’s draw at Hampden suggests there is not much between the sides and Martinez Losa is expecting what he describes as an “improving” side to be even more dangerous in front of their own fans, albeit in a neutral country.

Ukraine have nobody playing at a similar level to Chelsea forward Erin Cuthbert, or midfielder Caroline Weir, who has just left Manchester City, but former Scotland midfielder Leanne Crichton also believes Ukraine have “come a long way” in recent years.

“I think they will take a lot of motivation and incentive from the fact they were able to match Scotland the last time out for huge periods of the game,” she tells BBC Scotland.

“It is incredible that their group of players are back together because I know at one point there were real concerns about their welfare and if this game would be at all possible.”

As with their men’s side, Ukraine have been hampered by the suspension of their domestic football, but much of their squad found themselves alternative clubs scattered around Europe and won three friendlies in February – edging aside Venezuala (52nd) 1-0 before 2-0 victories over Uzbekistan (46th) and Bulgaria (88th).

At the same time, Scotland were still looking shell-shocked from November’s mentally bruising 8-0 thumping in Spain when losing 3-1 to Wales before narrow wins over Slovakia and Hungary as they failed to retain the Pinatar Cup.

They will, though, have taken heart from April’s improved display at home to Spain, albeit they still lost 2-0.

Scots have edge despite high emotions

While Ukraine’s men took inspiration from an emotionally charged Hampden crowd in this month’s World Cup play-off semi-final, their Scottish hosts appeared unable to rise to the occasion.

However, Crichton believes the circumstances will be different this time, even though the game will be played close to the border with Ukraine in front of a partisan crowd swelled by thousands of war refugees.

“I think the reality is the emotions were not the reason why the men lost,” she said. “I think they were outclassed, they were outplayed and were ultimately beaten by a better side on the night.

“The women’s game is in similar circumstances, it will be emotionally driven, but I do believe Scotland are a better side than Ukraine – they have the better players.”

Crichton does have concerns about how any Scotland side could be thumped 8-0 by Spain only five years since a 1-0 win for the Scots over little changed opponents.

The Scots’ recent lack of creativity and a goalscoring threat, particularly since Arsenal playmaker Kim Little ended her international career, has been particularly stark.

“It has taken the manager, in my opinion, a little bit longer to find out what his best team is,” Crichton suggests. “The game at Hampden against Spain was a tough ask because they had come off the back of that 8-0 defeat and there were huge question marks about how they would perform, but they performed a lot better and it was clearer what the identity of the team was during that game.

“The manager tweaked the system and personnel slightly and got more out of the team.”

Indeed, Crichton believes “the result from the men’s game will be a wake-up call” and backs Scotland to clinch victory and all but secure that play-off place. As for explaining the play-off permutations, those are for another time.

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