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Ireland out to upset confident Scotland at Hampden Park

The sides square off in the Nations League tonight.

A CELTIC CLASH at Hampden Park, for which Ireland insist they are confident and Scotland know they are. 

a-view-of-training Ireland train at Hampden Park. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Matthew Arnold wrote about the characters of both, lumping them together in his 19th-century work of mass condescension, On the Study of Celtic Literature. 

“If the downs of life too much outnumber the ups, this [Celtic] temperament may no doubt be seen shy and wounded; it may be seen in wistful regret; it may be seen in passionate, penetrating melancholy but its essence is to aspire ardently after life, light, and emotion, to be expansive, adventurous, and gay.” 

These extremes of emotion were later borne out by the Scottish football team. Ally McLeod brought Scotland to the 1978 World Cup saying they aimed to win the tournament, and two decades later they went to France ’98 with an official song that was sung by Del Amitri and mordantly titled Don’t Come Home Too Soon. 

Scottish sporting confidence is a remarkable thing: it grows at the rate of Japanese knotweed while remaining as frail as a single rose. 

That confidence is back in its blooming phase and it provides the background for tonight’s Nations League meeting with Ireland. That might appear curious given Ireland won the reverse fixture 3-0 three months ago, but Scotland are surfing into this game on the wave of Wednesday’s 3-0 hammering of Ukraine. 

“The summer really hurt us”, said acting Scotland captain John McGinn of the defeat in Dublin. “It damaged us as a group, especially with the progress we were making. It was a huge dent in our confidence, it certainly was. Once we got together, the manager set a few things straight. We knew where we had to improve. For us as a group, the belief and confidence that Wednesday night has given us has been huge.”

Scotland were outstanding in midweek, taking 23 shots without allowing a shot on target, a game in which manager Steve Clarke switched from a back three to a back four for the first time since 2019. Stephen Kenny says it is “immaterial” as to how Scotland set up, but they may regret to see the end of their opponents’ back three, which Ireland exploited in June: picture Troy Parrott ghosting between the right-sided centre back and right wing-back to head Ireland’s second goal – so different questions will be posed by a back four. 

Scotland’s zest and energy was more eye-catching than their system in midweek, and that was the area in which they were most deficient against Ireland. Kenny introduced Jayson Molumby for that game as an extra midfielder, and his “chaotic energy” helped Ireland to win the game. Parrott and Michael Obafemi’s goals were superb, but they started with Parrott and Molumby battling to win second balls in midfield. 

Such is the Scots’ confidence for this game there is talk among the local press that Kieran Tierney should be rested with Tuesday’s final game against Ukraine in mind. That rotation would admittedly have a pragmatic edge, as Scotland can afford to lose to Ireland and still top this group as they just have to win their final group game against Ukraine on Tuesday. 

Topping the group is a major prize: it brings promotion to Group A while guaranteeing a ranking as second seeds in the Euro 2024 qualifier draw along with the safety net of a Euros play-off. 

Scotland will also be motivated by their opportunity to avenge the defeat in Dublin. Lyndon Dykes set the tone by insisting Scotland have “got one to give to Ireland.” 

Ireland can still top the group too, although it’s highly improbable. Not only will they need to win tonight and against Armenia on Tuesday – unlikely given they have yet to win back-to-back competitive games under Stephen Kenny – they need Ukraine to draw or lose to Armenia this afternoon and the Ukraine/Scotland clash to end in a draw. All of these results will affect Ireland’s seeding and any potential play-off for the Euros, but the games’ significance will only become clear in retrospect. Best for Ireland to gather as many points as they can. 

Ireland will probably fall short of Kenny’s stated ambition to top the group, which he put on record before the draw was even made. That might be seen as another of Kenny’s attempts to impose confidence from above: his confidence in his players’ ability has always set him apart from his predecessors. 

Matt Doherty, meanwhile, insisted earlier this week that the squad have not lacked confidence since the early days of Kenny’s reign. “We get coached extremely well, our game plan is almost always spot on, so the confidence is there from the set-up we have.”  

The players and manager insist they have the confidence to continue playing their way, and passing out from the back. They diced with disaster a couple of times against Scotland in June, as twice Shane Duffy gave the ball away under a high Scottish press from a goal-kick and twice McGinn should have scored. That won’t stop them playing their way. 

“If you kick the ball long, you’re just giving it away a lot of the time anyway”, said Kenny earlier this week. “We said at half-time to have conviction, don’t get caught again but do it better to show that we really can play from the back.” 

Kenny said Ireland are no longer dwelling on that performance in Dublin, but added that it would be “difficult” not to pick the same team. Of the XI that started in June, only Caoimhín Kelleher is unavailable tonight, with Gavin Bazunu’s return negating that absence. 

There may be a few changes, however. There’s a spot up for grabs in the back three alongside Nathan Collins and John Egan, with Dara O’Shea’s size, comfort in possession and match sharpness likely giving him an edge ahead of Shane Duffy and Seamus Coleman, neither of whom have started a Premier League game this season.

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Doherty has been similarly under-used this season, but he insists Antonio Conte’s brutal pre-seasons means he is fit to start. Jeff Hendrick will push to displace Jayson Molumby from the midfield trio, but the latter’s boundless energy might keep him in the team. Robbie Brady is back to contend with James McClean for the left wing-back position. 

Kenny name-checked Callum Robinson and Scott Hogan at his pre-game press conference, but neither are expected to start. It’s a case of picking two from Parrott, Obafemi, and Ogbene: Parrott is a firm favourite of Kenny’s, and Ogbene’s goalscoring form at the start of the season and pace behind a high-pressing Scotland may earn him a return to the starting team. 

scotland-v-ukraine-uefa-nations-league-group-1-hampden-park John McGinn. Source: PA

Ireland will need physicality if they are to thrive tomorrow night, to deal both to deal with Scotland’s set-piece threat – two of their goals in midweek came from corners – and also the titanium-plated wrecking ball that has become of McGinn’s arse. The first goal in midweek was prefaced by the sight of McGinn’s thrusting rump swatting aside a Ukraine defender. McGinn says he would be playing for Yeovil without it, and it was deemed worthy of a question to Kenny at yesterday’s pre-game press conference, polite etiquette obeyed in referring to “John McGinn’s rear end” in a bashful, I-went-to-university-and-now-I-am-asking-about-this tone. 

Kenny said he should be careful with his answer, but issued diplomatic praise, comparing McGinn’s favourably to Kenny Dalglish, who turned the shielding of possession “into an art form.” 

Success for Ireland will be if Kenny can talk with such positivity about the rear end of this Nations League campaign. 

Scotland (Possible XI, 4-2-3-1): Craig Gordon; Aaron Hickey, Jack Hendry, Scott McKenna, Kieran Tierney; Scott McTominay, Callum McGregor; Ryan Fraser, John McGinn, Ryan Christie; Che Adams 

Republic of Ireland (Possible XI, 3-5-2): Gavin Bazunu; Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins, John Egan; Matt Doherty; Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight; James McClean; Troy Parrott, Chiedozie Ogbene 

On TV: RTE Two; KO 7.45pm 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney  / reports from Glasgow

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