Kazakhstan v Scotland: What are the key decisions facing Alex McLeish?

By Andrew SouthwickBBC Scotland
Euro 2020 qualifying: Kazakhstan v Scotland
Venue: Astana Arena Date: Thursday, 21 March Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website; watch highlights on BBC Scotland

Scotland kick-off their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign nearly 4,000 miles away from home in Kazakhstan on Thursday.

The seven-hour flight offered manager Alex McLeish plenty of time to mull over the key decisions he has to make as he bids to top a group that also includes Belgium, Russia, Cyprus and San Marino.

Here, BBC Scotland takes a look at a five key decisions McLeish must make as he attempts to secure a place at next summer's European Championships.

Who replaces McGregor in goal?

On the eve of the squad announcement, Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor retired from international football having only recently re-established himself as number one ahead of Celtic's Craig Gordon. However, Gordon is no longer Celtic's first choice, and has been replaced in McLeish's latest squad by the man who has usurped him at club level, Scott Bain.

Like Bain, the other two goalkeepers in the initial selection - Jon McLaughlin and Jordan Archer - won their only caps to date last summer. Liam Kelly, who has replaced the injured Archer, is uncapped.

Bain - perhaps understandably given his club - has the best clean-sheet record of the five obvious contenders, and seems likely to start in Kazakhstan and San Marino.

Games per clean sheet for the five main men in contention
Games per clean sheet for the five main men in contention

Who does he play at left-back?

Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie seems likely to fill the role in Kazakhstan on Thursday, with both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney injured. However, the feted duo may both be available for Sunday's game in San Marino, leaving McLeish to work out if he can accommodate both.

The manager had hoped to use the Nations League campaign to find a new role for Tierney, with his initial plan to play the Celtic defender in a back three with Robertson at wing back. However, after defeat in Israel, McLeish reverted to a back four for the final double-header of the campaign, winning 4-0 in Albania before a 3-2 home win over Israel. Tierney missed those games injured, too.

"I know Tierney has played the right full-back position before with good success before under Gordon Strachan, so it's not something we will ignore," said McLeish. "Because if he's capable of putting those kind of performances in then we have to consider it. If he's the right man for the job then we have to look at it."

Who does he chose in midfield?

Even with the nine call-offs prior to the Albania and Israel games, McLeish was still able to field an impressive midfield trio of Callum McGregor, Stuart Armstrong, and Ryan Christie. With the latter out injured, Scott McTominay may come in after impressive recent displays for Manchester United, but John McGinn has netted three times in his last two Aston Villa outings.

With Ryan Fraser missing the Kazakhstan game because of concerns over the artificial surface, McLeish has a choice to make on the wing. Does Oliver Burke start wide? Or has he been earmarked for a striking role? Johnny Russell and Lewis Morgan are perhaps more natural options in an attacking left-sided role.

Top club scorers this season among the Scotland squad
Top club scorers this season among the Scotland squad

And who starts in attack?

Leigh Griffiths' prolonged absence and the injury-enforced unavailability of Steven Fletcher and Steven Naismith leaves no obvious choice to start in Astana.

Oli McBurnie has been tried before; Burke has started well since joining Celtic in January, with four goals in 14 appearances; and Marc McNulty has seven in nine games since arriving at Hibs on a temporary deal. Does McLeish put his faith in the untested Easter Road man in Kazakhstan? Or does he wait for Sunday's game in San Marino?

"McNulty is a good hold-up player; he's different from Oli McBurnie and Oli Burke," said McLeish. "So that gives us a bit of versatility. When he played for Coventry he was banging them in."

Keep putting faith in youth?

In their two most recent matches, McLeish's side had an average age of 26. Without McGregor and Fletcher, that will drop even further.

The national team fielded five players under the age of 25 against Israel - including 22-year-olds David Bates and Scott McKenna in central defence - and were without McTominay, McBurnie and John Souttar who are all just 22, and 21-year-old Burke. New additions Stuart Findlay and Kelly are 23. McGinn is 24. And Bain is 10 years younger than McGregor.

Jon McLaughlin is the only member of the squad to have celebrated his 30th birthday, with Johnny Russell taking on the mantle of the oldest outfield player at 28.

In comparison, Gordon Strachan's last match in charge - a 2-2 draw in Slovenia - included five players over the age of 30 with an average age of 28.

Could this be the starting XI against Kazakhstan? It has an average age of 24
Could this be the starting XI against Kazakhstan? It has an average age of 24

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