For the briefest moment, David Marshall stood in suspended animation, unsure whether to celebrate, waiting for referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz to give him the thumbs up and end 23 years of international heartache for Scotland.
Having failed to secure qualification to Euro 2020 via the conventional route, Scotland tried their luck in the play-offs, where they faced two gruelling tests against Israel and Serbia in Path C, the latter of whom they beat 5-4 on penalties in Belgrade and entered a first major tournament since 1998.
Marshall was the hero on the night, saving Aleksandar Mitrovic’s decisive spot-kick last November to send the Scottish players into raptures and end over two decades of agony. No longer will they have their faces pressed up against the shop window, now Scotland have the volition to enter the store on their own terms.
Steve Clarke and his side have been placed in Group D alongside England, but what can we expect from Scotland ahead of the summer revelry?
The best players Scotland will bring to Euro 2020
It will remain an evocative image in Scottish lore, Marshall just postponing his celebrations while the referee gave the all-clear that he didn’t accidentally stray off his line, but not even the emotion-sapping framework of VAR could dilute the sheer ecstasy that followed once the green light was given.
Marshall, now 36, remains a sturdy and commanding goalkeeper, captaining Derby County this season after Wayne Rooney traded turf for dugout, and while a back injury has seen Kelle Roos deputise recently, he will be determined to win back his place.
The Glaswegian has stiff competition from 38-year-old Craig Gordon, whose seven clean sheets this season have helped Hearts to a near-insurmountable position atop the Scottish second division, but Marshall remains the preferred choice between the sticks, and he will bring not only an authoritative voice further back, but a wealth of experience, athleticism and, evidently, confidence in shootouts.
Skipper of the national side, Andrew Robertson is absolutely indispensable to Clarke in every aspect of Scotland’s play, from energising the left flank with inexorable zeal to providing a world-class attacking threat and crunching into challenges with an obsessive dedication to winning back possession.
The latter trait has been deeply embedded in his football psyche owing to the press-and-possess principles upheld at Anfield, with Jurgen Klopp deeply wedded to a high-octane system in which closing down and winning back possession are the cornerstones of his philosophy.
In years gone by, Scotland’s creativity and forward-thinking menace have naturally come from higher up the turf, chiefly Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law, but now it’s further back where fans are treated to exhibitions of attacking panache through Robertson, and left-back teammate Kieran Tierney of Arsenal.
It’s a tantalising prospect, the midfield trident of Scott McTominay, John McGinn and Billy Gilmour, and one that may go on to define an era in Scottish history, but for now the latter remains uncapped and unable to elbow his way to the front of the queue at Stamford Bridge, with Thomas Tuchel boasting a traffic jam of midfield talent.
As such, Clarke’s most influential midfield option remains McTominay, who continues to go from strength to strength at Manchester United, and will bring a variegated presence in the nation’s XI, with his blend of athleticism, defensive resilience and driving runs offering a full range of the talent spectrum.
Such versatility will work wonders to complement the terrier-like exploits of McGinn, whose persistent harrying somewhat belies his ability on the ball. Combined, the duo should work well in tandem to provide Scotland with a resolute platform so the likes of Robertson and Tierney can surge forward.
Clarke utilised McTominay as part of a three-man backline during the last international break with mixed success, but the Man Utd midfielder looked more at ease and comfortable in defence as the games went on, while Ryan Jack has instead proven an excellent foil to McGinn’s tenacity in the centre of the pitch.
Australia-born Dykes has been the go-to No.9 for Clarke in recent international outings, and he will likely continue leading the line for Scotland in June. Dykes, who has scored five Championship goals for QPR in April alone, is an aggressive and physically-dominant centre-forward who can ruffle a few feathers.
Lyndon Dykes won 15 (FIFTEEN) aerials for Scotland vs. Serbia, three times as many as any other Scotland player.
The very definition of a target man. 🙆♂️ pic.twitter.com/nizvzjmDY4
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 12, 2020
The 25-year-old netted twice and provided an assist during the Nations League matches between September and November, while his overall game is much more than just goals alone.
Whether Clarke will want to make drastic changes to his system and personnel will remain the key question, but Dykes was integral to their qualification campaign and he will likely remain loyal to a player who brought a new dimension to their final third in autumn.
Scotland’s record under Steve Clarke
Clarke has worked alongside some of football’s most venerated figures, including Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Ruud Gullit at Newcastle and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. He’s also assisted Gianfranco Zola at West Ham, secured West Brom their best top-flight finish since 1981 and guided Kilmarnock to Europe.
So, the former Chelsea defender has pedigree and quite the illustrious coaching CV, and that has translated to the turf for Scotland. In 19 games, he has managed 10 wins and three draws, but qualifying for a first European Championship since England ’96 has already made his stint a success no matter the outcome in just a few month’s time.
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when McTominay was deployed on the right side of a back three in September’s Nations League games, in which Scotland failed to keep a clean sheet against either Israel or the Czech Republic, with the auxiliary centre-back not looking entirely at ease in an unfamiliar role.
As a precursor to the play-offs, Clarke was tempted to abandon the experiment and revert to a more rudimentary back four, pushing McTominay back up the field. But, he later revealed that it was the players who actually talked him out of changing tactics for the games against Israel and Serbia, and it certainly paid off.
“The players wanted that system to work,” Clarke told BBC Radio 5 Live. “It was a big call, but Scott was comfortable enough to go back there and play. And having those two games probably helped us just to bed him into the position.
“He got caught under one cross against Israel at Hampden but it happens. I’ve seen top-class central defenders get caught under a cross. But that was pointed out as a big mistake.
“And then we gave the ball away in a terrible position in the Czech Republic and Scott was exposed one v one and got done on a little one-two, and he got the blame for that as well.
“But I could see what I was looking for on the pitch. I could see the ideas that we had.
“We [Clarke and the players] spoke afterwards about whether we would stick with it or go to a back four, and the players were comfortable with the formation so we decided to go with it.”
The system is tailored to fit both Robertson and Tierney into one side, arguably Scotland’s two most important players. It certainly helps that Tierney has been utilised as part of a back three under Mikel Arteta for Arsenal this season (see below), so the transition isn’t quite as drastic a leap as McTominay’s from club to international football.
Stephen O’Donnell mans the opposite wing-back berth to Robertson, a player Clarke knew exceptionally well from his time at Kilmarnock. The former Luton Town defender has been a mainstay since Clarke took the reins and has formed a strong understanding with McTominay on the right side.
McTominay, of course, has carte blanche to canter forward, where he can link up with the midfield two of McGinn and Jack, who provide ample protection thanks to their non-stop running and confidence on the ball. The double-pivot is also an excellent buffer and springboard for Clarke’s attacking trident.
There are copious options Scotland can go with in attack, and Clarke’s arsenal has recently been strengthened by Che Adams switching allegiances and receiving his first call-up. The Southampton man will compete with Dykes for the No.9 spot, while two of Ryan Fraser, Ryan Christie, Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor will be selected to dovetail the leading man up top.
The form guide
Euro 2020 qualifying (including the play-offs): WWWWWLLL
In a daunting Group I, Scotland finished third with five wins and five defeats, finishing some way off Russia in second and a considerable distance from flawless Belgium, who sealed victory in all 10 of their games. They did manage to win their last three matches against Kazakhstan, Cyprus and San Marino, which generated some momentum heading into the play-offs, ultimately sealing successive penalty wins over Israel and Serbia.
Recent fixtures: WDDLLWWWWWD
In Group B2 of the 2020/21 Nations League, which took place between September and November, Scotland finished in second, just two points behind table-toppers Czech Republic, who ultimately sealed promotion to League A for 2022/23 as a result. Clarke’s men lost their last two games, which came just a few days after their generational win over Serbia, so they can perhaps be forgiven for taking their foot off the pedal slightly. They’ve since made an unbeaten start to World Cup qualifying, drawing with Austria and Israel before a big win over the Faroe Islands.
Scotland’s Euro 2020 odds
It would be one of football’s biggest upsets, Scotland winning the Euros, but stranger things have happened, and they may take inspiration from Wales’ semi-final finish at France 2016. So, if you fancy Clarke’s men to go all the way, Sky Bet are offering odds of 150/1 for Scotland to win Euro 2020 outright.
For the nation to pull that fairytale off, though, they would first need to qualify from Group D, which features Croatia and the Czech Republic, alongside England, and you can get odds of 5/4 for them to make it through, or even 12/1 to top the table and win the group.