Scotland ready for biggest game in a generation against Serbia and chance to end long tournament wait

Scotland are ready for the biggest game in a generation

“No regrets.” That is what both Steve Clarke and Andy Robertson want once the final whistle has sounded on the biggest game in Scottish football for a decade or more. A 22-year wait to qualify for a major tournament could finally end at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade on Thursday night in the Euro 2020 play-offs. Whatever happens, nothing can be kept in reserve.

“When you go into every game that is obviously a message you want to give, that you leave everything out there on the pitch,” Clarke said a few short hours before boarding a flight to the Balkans on Wednesday afternoon.

“This game, with its magnitude, means I don’t need to say that because the players understand if they come off the pitch with regrets then they will never forget that night. You go out there, you do your best, you do everything you can and hopefully the footballing gods give you a little bit of luck, they smile on you a bit and you get the right result.”

It is a game of generational significance. Every member of Clarke’s squad had just about been born by the time a resounding 3-0 defeat to Morocco in Saint-Etienne which sent Scotland home from the 1998 World Cup, but only a handful are old enough to have any substantial memories of that summer.  

Read more: How to watch Serbia vs Scotland in Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final for free

“That makes me feel quite old,” Clarke joked yesterday. “Some mentioned that Scott McKenna was only two the last time Scotland qualified. I was still playing the last time Scotland qualified, so it’s a very, very long time ago.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that an entire generation of Scottish fans do not know what it is like to watch their national team at a major finals. Neither does their captain. “I was four when Scotland last got to a tournament,” Robertson said, but he and his team-mates must now deliver for the friends and family members they grew up with.  

“I look back at old videos and have talked to my family about how good it was to see the Tartan Army at tournaments. I remember my manager at Liverpool talking about how fun they were in Germany when he was a little boy during the World Cup.

“We know how big a fanbase we have and how passionate they are. We want to see them at a major tournament and we’re the next group of lads who can go achieve that. It definitely gives us an added incentive to put a smile on the faces of five million people back home.”

It may be tempting to think of those five million people and conclude that Scotland’s record of four tournament appearances in three decades is at least par for the course and that a 22-year drought is not too exceptional. Then again, what of 357,000-strong Iceland and 4 million-strong Croatia? One progressed to the quarter-finals of a European Championship, another to the World Cup final and – best of all – both vanquished the English along the way.

That is the prize on offer if Scotland qualify, with the winner of Thursday’s playoff taking a place in Group D alongside England, Croatia and the Czech Republic at next summer’s tournament. All but one of Scotland’s three group games would be played at Hampden Park too, so long as the pandemic does not wreak havoc with the tournament’s format having already pushed it back a year.

Serbia are favourites as the higher-ranked nation and at home. Ljubisa Tumbakovic, the head coach, can call upon both Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Tadic, and will be relieved that four Serie A-based players – Aleksandar Kolarov, Sergej Milinkovic Savic, Nikola Milenkovic and Dusan Vlahovic – will be available despite coronavirus restrictions in Italy briefly threatening their involvement.  

Yet Clarke has cause for optimism too, arriving in the Balkans on the back of a eight-game unbeaten run. “The lads are very focused,” he said. “We understand the task in hand. But for us, it’s business as usual. It’s a game of football. We know we can only win or lose, we know the magnitude of the prize at the end of it. But ultimately we have to rely on the principles of the way we’ve been playing in recent matches.

“I think the players are grounded. There’s no point us getting carried away with ourselves. As a nation we’ve been here often enough before without getting over the line so this group of players understand what’s at stake and is needed to get it done this time.”

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