An impressive start to their Euro 2016 campaign has heightened talk of Scotland’s first qualification for a major tournament since 1998, a route they can shuttle towards by beating Ireland at Parkhead.
With two of three most difficult away tests — against Germany and Poland — ticked off, Gordon Strachan’s squad and staff are devoting scant concern to the three-point buffer generated by the Poles and Ireland in the Group D table.
That they host Martin O’Neill’s resurgent Ireland in their next assignment on their home turf invigorates the Scots, even if they’re not treating the clash of the Celtic cousins as a campaign-defining fixture.
“We won’t be even at the midway point of the campaign after playing Ireland so I don’t consider it a must-win game,” stressed Strachan’s assistant Mark McGhee in the aftermath of their 2-2 draw on Tuesday in Warsaw.
“Ireland getting a point in Germany and ourselves drawing with Poland sets up this fixture nicely. What a game we have now in the offing. It’s a fixture the players are all excited about. What I’m certain of, however, is if there’s a winner from the games between us, they’ll be in a great position to qualify.”
Steven Naismith, Scotland’s workhorse in attack and the scorer of their second goal against the Poles, points to the team’s stellar home record as evidence of their confident mindset heading into the crunch fixture. Not since Belgium won at Hampden Park 13 months ago have they lost in Glasgow.
“Home form will be key,” reasoned the forward, set to lock horns with the cohort of Irish Everton team-mates.
“I think it’s too early to be talking about needing to beat Ireland but we’ll go into the match thinking that way,” said Naismith.
“There’s a maturing of this squad over the last year, shown again in how we picked up four points in the games against Georgia and Poland. Leading against Georgia at home, we had to hold on at the end, whereas in Poland, the team bounced back from conceding an early goal.”
Scotland are aiming to recreate former glories by qualifying. Video footage of their manager’s wacky celebration after scoring against Germany at the 1986 World Cup follows them into every campaign. Seven tournaments have elapsed without Scotland’s presence since their last appearance at the top table, the 1998 World Cup in France, yet Naismith senses an uprising.
“There have been some tough times over the past 15 years, particularly for the fans, but the Tartan Army seems to believe in this team as much we do ourselves,” he says. “It’s like one big group. Fans, players and staff are in it together. The support on the road in Germany and Poland was incredible and the game against Ireland at Celtic Park promises to be something special.”
The game represents a reunion of sorts for McGhee and Keane. Since handing the fresh-faced kid from Tallaght a full debut as Wolves manager back in 1997, Keane has more than fulfilled the talent his boss saw him as a 17-year-old.
McGhee said: “I know Robbie well. I noticed him at Wolves when he was 16 during pre-season with the youth side. By the start of the league he was in my team, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win at Norwich on his debut.”
Such is his former protégé’s phenomenal strike rate for his country that McGhee assumed the record-breaker had bagged another upon hearing of Ireland’s great escape in Gelsenkirchen.
“Did Robbie score?” was McGhee’s first question to reporters walking towards the team bus. He’ll be hoping Keane isn’t keeping his 66th international goal up for Paradise in 29 days time.
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