Scotland: Why Steve Clarke's side must rouse themselves for Nations League campaign

John McGinn on Hampden turf
Scotland have a Nations League triple-header to rouse themselves for
Nations League: Scotland v Armenia
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, 8 June Time: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to commentary on Sportsound, follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app and watch highlights on Sportscene

After a gut-wrenching play-off failure against Ukraine at Hampden, Scotland boss Steve Clarke will have a tough time picking up his players.

Even with a trip to Cardiff on Sunday struck from the schedule, a gruelling end-of-season international window still has three games remaining as the Scots kick off their Nations League campaign on Wednesday.

With a triple-header over the course of six days quickly approaching, Clarke’s men must dust themselves down.

Since the competition’s formation in 2018, its importance has often been dismissed. But as Scotland have learned before, it can have its benefits.

Right, who will Scotland play?

Scotland are one of four teams in Group B1 along with Armenia, Republic of Ireland and Ukraine. Aye, them again.

Thankfully, the encounters against the Ukrainians – who looked a class above during the World Cup semi-final play-off – are further in the distance.

Two games against Armenia bookend the upcoming three fixtures, starting on Wednesday, with a tasty trip to Dublin sandwiched in between.

The final trio of matches then take place over another intense six-day spell in September, staring and ending with tough tests against Ukraine, with a clash against Ireland at Hampden lodged in the middle.

What’s the prize?

Remember Scotland got to Euro 2020? Ah, good times. It feels like an eternity ago now but Clarke’s men secured their passage to the delayed finals via the Nations League.

Finishing top of Group C1 under Alex McLeish put the Scots into a play-off semi-final with Israel, which was navigated thanks to a penalty shootout victory after a goalless draw at Hampden.

That night in Serbia followed – another heart-stopping shootout win was achieved, this time after a 1-1 draw in Belgrade.

In the days after the Belgrade bedlam, Scotland failed to secure that safety net for a World Cup play-off spot after back-to-back defeats in Slovakia and Israel prevented Clarke’s side earning top spot.

A play-off place was earned regardless thanks to finishing second in their World Cup qualifying group, but it is always nice to know you have something to fall back on.

Uefa is yet to confirm the exact play-off format and how the Nations League will impact it, but it is safe to assume that finishing top of your group will strengthen your hand of a backdoor entry, while certainly improving your ranking.

Finishing top of Group B1 will also ensure promotion to League A, meaning glamour occasions against top nations.

Is this a chance to experiment?

The 3-5-2 system Clarke has drilled into his Scotland squad has been a success overall, but Wednesday’s meek play-off defeat certainly highlighted flaws.

The absence of influential Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney on the left of the back three was worryingly evident throughout and the Scotland boss must try find a solution – the 28-man squad, larger than his usual selections, gives him options to do that.

Teenager Aaron Hickey, who struggled at times on his first start at right wing-back, will need more international experience to get up to speed, while fellow full-back Anthony Ralston of Celtic is also yet to establish himself.

With 39-year-old goalkeeper Craig Gordon gradually reaching the final years of his career, might Clarke reintroduce new Hibernian signing David Marshall or hand Motherwell’s Liam Kelly or Zander Clark – now a free agent after departing St Johnstone – a chance to prove themselves?

There is plenty to ponder for the head coach, but too much experimental rotation also comes with a risk. With the potential Nations League reward great for his side, the former Kilmarnock manager may still rely on the tried and trusted.

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