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Where do Scotland and Steve Clarke go from here?

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hislopsoffsideagain

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Another international week endured, and the national team came remarkably close to accomplishing an impossible task - increasing the apathy already surrounding them.

It started in Moscow on Thursday night, where Scotland survived a first half onslaught mostly through luck rather than ability and then started the second period with purpose. And inevitably their best fifteen minute spell of the match culminated in a goal...for Russia.

The subsequent collapse felt like just another humiliation to add to the list. But in the cold light of day it could be recognised that the team are considerably better organized than under Alex McLeish. Unfortunately, when one of your centre-backs is from the bottom end of the English Championship and the other might not even get a game for Aberdeen when teammates are fully fit, you are still going to get pumped by the Lukakus, De Bruynes, Golovins and Dzyubas of this world.

Artem Dzyuba vs Charlie Mulgrew was a grossly unfair matchup at Hampden last month and yet somehow this was even worse, a footballing Zangief up against a guy who looks like he's temporarily taken off his denim shirt and acoustic guitar in order to play. It tells you something that Steve Clarke, confident enough to cap several of his former Kilmarnock charges in previous matches, thought that Stuart Findlay would fare even worse than the hapless Mulgrew and Mikey Devlin.

When in the aftermath of that defeat I put it to the Twitterverse to suggest their strongest Scotland XI its worth noting that nobody went with either Mulgrew or Devlin as part of their lineup. I'd go with the majority picks of John Souttar and Scott McKenna, though it must be noted that this is a duo with great potential but who are still a long way away from where we need them to be. Ditto Findlay, Craig Halkett, Declan Gallagher and whoever else you can think of.

And until Scotland solve this centre-back problem then they will always be up against it. Perhaps Clarke could - should - have protected them better with his midfield, though it should be remembered that a screen of Kenny McLean and Scott McTominay also got the runaround in Brussels. Finding the right balance in midfield remains a challenge; only John McGinn The Human Whirling Dervish appears to be a player for all seasons and all opponents. At what point does the manager have to conclude that picking your best playmaker, Callum McGregor, is no use if you can't get possession?

But, if Clarke is still entitled to the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is looking at the bigger picture - that the game in Russia mattered not a jot and that our World Cup Final is in March, the Euro 2020 playoff semi-final at Hampden against an opponent who will be closer to our level. Given the lack of preparation time at international level, there is certainly an argument that concentrating on your lineup and system for that game, and potentially the playoff final after that, is far more important.

Which is fine as long as the hammerings don't destroy the confidence of the players or the fans. The capitulation in Russia was obviously concerning from that point of view. At least the players went about their business professionally against San Marino, though John McGinn's hat-trick against such abysmal opposition justifies only slightly more applause than putting one's own socks on in the morning. Still, it was a thumping win with no scares, no consolation goals conceded and despite dreadful conditions which added an element of interest and amusement to proceedings without hindering the home side.

The twenty thousand - which hopefully included a lot of kids who haven't yet had their souls destroyed from watching Scotland for the last several years - who pitched up during a monsoon at least got to enjoy a victory and lots of goals. The official attendance was at least far higher than that which was expected a few days earlier, but a ticket price of £30 for a game like this raises significant questions about the SFA's priorities. It's clearly in the interests of the home team to get as many fans into the stadium as possible, and in the long run increasing interest and excitement in the national team can only be a good thing - look at the positive effect the success of the Women's Team has had.

But prices like that stink of nothing more than trying to fleece over-loyal Tartan Army footsoldiers, which is a recurring theme over the last decade or so. What is the point of the national team in the SFA's eyes? Is it just to make money over the short-term, or is it about something far bigger? If it's the latter then it's no surprise that the product on the pitch is just as unambitious and small-time.

If they have even a modicum of sense (don't hold your breath) they will try and cram as many folk into the ground for the Kazakhstan game as possible - hopefully a convincing win on the back of a victory in Cyprus. Then with spirits lifted, and five months having passed since the last competitive defeat, they need to do the same, charging buttons if necessary, for that playoff semi. For that is the get out of jail free card, where Scotland can pull itself out of this deep hole just (!) by winning two matches. Pull that off and all will be forgiven and forgotten.

Fail, and it's back to oblivion for the indefinite future.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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