A year and two days ago, Scotland went to Ukraine and were taught a footballing lesson. The hosts' 2-0 winning scoreline did not reflect their control from start to finish. Scotland were dogged but outplayed, flat-footed and toothless.
Those were Scotland's first dropped points of the Euro 2008 campaign, after three straight wins, and only three more have been dropped since, to Italy in Bari in March. As Scotland prepare to face Ukraine again, on their own turf, the Group B table shows that they have won their seven other matches, including all four at Hampden, to lie top of the table but hardly home and dry.
This afternoon is not just important to Scottish hopes of reaching next summer's finals: they could require as many as seven points from today, Wednesday's trip to Georgia and next month's return fixture with Italy. It is also a litmus test of how far they have really come as a football team in 367 days.
Alex McLeish, Scotland's manager, said yesterday that his side are champing at the bit to prove that the answer is "a long way". He is confident that their growth and improvement as a unit is sound and sustainable.
"To say they're looking forward to this is an understatement," he said. "You can see the edge about them in training this week... There's a maturity about them that's risen since the start of the campaign. They're handling things like the hysteria of the last double-header [a home win against Lithuania and a win in France]. When people thought we'd come off the rails [after the two campaign defeats], they handled it.
"It wasn't a problem to bring their feet back to the ground after Paris because it was straight back to club football. If their feet weren't on the ground, then it didn't show when Rangers [and a handful of Scotland players] won 3-0 at Lyon in the Champions League, or when Celtic [ditto] beat Milan the next night." He also pointed out that the hero of Paris, James McFadden, has been "playing out of his skin" for Everton, scoring an important goal in the Uefa Cup.
The result in France has certainly boosted confidence. "It entitles the players to belief," McLeish said. "You can't just tell someone to be confident. You need to earn the right to confidence, and by winning in France the players did that."
McLeish was typically cagey about his line-up and tactics, reserving the right to change his mind late on, as he did in Paris. But 4-4-2 has been his preferred strategy at Hampden, and the main areas of contention are the fourth midfielder – alongside certain starters in Barry Ferguson, Scott Brown and Lee McCulloch – and the striking partnership. Derby's Stephen Pearson could get the nod in midfield, while McFadden's form merits a start up front, partnered by Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd or Garry O'Connor. Miller's scoring form in the Premiership could edge it.
Ukraine will probably start with Andrei Shev-chenko and Andrei Voronin, aided by Sergei Nazarenko, effectively a third striker on the counter-attack. Anatoli Tymoschuk, a playmaker with Zenit St Petersburg who featured at the World Cup and was Ukraine's 2006 Footballer of the Year, is another big danger. Tymoschuk was singled out yesterday by Ferguson, Scotland's captain, as a threat. "We won't be able to take our eyes off him for a single second," he said. "He's a great all-round midfielder."
But Ferguson is relishing the challenge. "This is the first time I've been involved in a campaign when we've been close to qualifying with three games left. Normally, half way through we've been out of it."
He welcomes the fresh pressures success brings. "I'd rather go into games under pressure to get a result than go into a game when it doesn't matter. It brings out the best in you." And he joked about the flood of requests he now gets for tickets. "Two or three years ago none of my mates wanted to go! We were lucky if we got 25,000 in."
Hampden will be a 52,000-seat sell-out today, a sign of changing times.
Scotland (4-4-1-1, possible): Gordon (Sunderland); Hutton (Rangers), Weir (Rangers), McManus (Celtic), Alexander (Burnley); Brown (Celtic), Ferguson (Rangers), Pearson (Derby), McCulloch (Rangers); McFadden (Everton); Miller (Derby).
Ukraine (4-4-2, possible): Shovkovskiy (Dynamo Kiev); Nesmachniy (Dynamo Kiev), Kucher (Shakhtar Donetsk), Rusol (Dnipro), Yezerskiy (Shakhtar Donetsk); Gusev (Dynamo Kiev), Tymoschuk (Zenit St Petersburg), Nazarenko (Dnipro), Shelayev (Dnipro); Shevchenko (Chelsea), Voronin (Liverpool).
Referee: P Vink (Netherlands).Reuse content