Steve Clarke must decide whether Scotland stick or twist against Ireland

Scotland’s manager works in an unforgiving domain. Steve Clarke led his country to a first major finals in more than two decades yet received fierce criticism on account of his team’s performances against the Czech Republic and Croatia. As Ukraine eased past Scotland in June, in a match when the backdrop was both curious and weighted against them, the manager was again castigated.

Some have never liked Clarke, for reasons related to petty club tribalism, but there is no question others find it simple to portray him as the kind of old-school coach Scotland can well do without. The depiction is entirely unfair, but it lingers.

Clarke finds himself in a dilemma as he prepares for the Republic of Ireland’s visit to Hampden Park on Saturday. Whether Scotland draw or win is irrelevant in respect of winning group B1 of the Nations League; a point would still be needed from the meeting with Ukraine on Tuesday in Krakow. The Nations League has proven Uefa’s gift to Scotland. It elevated them towards Euro 2020. Topping this section would, among other things, place Scotland in pot two for the Euro 2024 draw.

The atmosphere during the first half of the 3-0 win over Ukraine on Wednesday implied members of the Tartan Army do not recognise it but the Nations League is hugely significant in respect of this team’s tournament aspirations.

That Clarke will not assume defeat can be avoided against Ireland has foundation in June, when Stephen Kenny’s men romped to a 3-0 win against the hapless Scots. Clarke was at a loss to explain Scotland’s display. The manager bore the brunt of a disproportionate backlash.

The quandary relates to the extent to which Clarke can stand by what served him so well in match one of two against Ukraine. Conscious of public sentiment and embarrassment at the Aviva Stadium, he will want to make a statement against Ireland but has to be pragmatic about available resource. Sticking carries danger in respect of physical and psychological fatigue. Twist and Ireland may again pop Scotland’s bubble. The condensed nature of this early-season segment will see club managers glancing anxiously towards Clarke.

Andy Robertson was already a Scotland absentee due to injury before Nathan Patterson was added to the casualty list. Red flags fly above umpteen of those who started the Ukraine match. Jack Hendry has featured for seven minutes of Cremonese’s season. Kieran Tierney’s injury history suggests playing a trio of games in such a short window may not be wise.

Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor and John McGinn are so essential to the way Scotland play that their absence on Tuesday on account of any problem incurred against Ireland would cause Clarke a major headache. Billy Gilmour could be thrown into midfield but has only a cameo for Brighton as 2022-23 competitive action.

Scotland have only two strikers, Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes, with their differing styles meaning Clarke has to be able to call upon both.

Clarke is worthy of high praise for his role in Wednesday’s victory. His switch from a back three to four proved a resounding success. Craig Gordon has enjoyed three clean sheets in six days; that he endured a far tougher time when playing for Hearts against RFS of Latvia and Motherwell says it all about Scottish strength versus Ukraine. At 39, Gordon remains indispensable as first-choice goalkeeper.

Irish pundits and fans bridle, not without justification, at the sense of superiority from Scotland. The ridicule that met Motherwell’s European exit at the hands of Sligo Rovers was noted. Kenny, like Clarke, is not without his detractors but his team have drawn with Belgium, Portugal and Ukraine. With victory essential at Hampden, Ireland can play with freedom. Scotland are in the odd situation where a draw is as valuable as a win before a cup final.

Against the Czech Republic and Croatia, also in Glasgow, Scotland failed to cope with giddy expectancy. Those Euro 2020 setbacks stung Clarke and his squad, just as events in Dublin in June appear to have fuelled a drive to prove a point. When Scotland perform at their optimum level – last year’s win over Denmark was similar to the Ukraine match in that respect – they look a seriously formidable team. There is, however, lingering fear over outcomes if levels drop.

Clarke’s key task in the coming days is to recognise the prize within Scotland’s grasp while ensuring they do not topple at the second-last hurdle. Taking on an injury-affected Ukraine while needing a draw to win this section is an enviable scenario. Clarke must shuffle his pack but without undermining that tantalising prospect.