Austria v Scotland: Actions, not words, needed as Steve Clarke's side face World Cup showdown

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scotland's Ryan Fraser, Lyndon Dykes and Callum McGregor are left despondent in Denmark
Scotland could not recover from two quick goals in Denmark
World Cup qualifying Group F: Scotland v Moldova
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 4 Sept Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Sport website

The total disintegration of the feelgood created by Scotland's qualification for the Euro 2020 finals is now almost complete.

Damaged in the first instance by back-to-back defeats by Slovakia and Israel that butchered their Nations League opportunity, then sent reeling by failure on the big stage in the summer, with the likely knockout blow coming next week when Scotland have to beat Austria in Vienna (presuming they beat lowly Moldova in Glasgow first) to keep alive their hopes of a shot at the World Cup.

Austria's most recent results, just like Scotland's, don't offer much encouragement. If they get close to the level they found when taking eventual champions Italy to extra-time in the last 16 of the Euros - they lost 2-1 - then Steve Clarke's prospects of making the play-offs for Qatar are all but goosed.

A draw is really not good enough for Scotland now. Victory is everything.

After a brief respite following those penalty shootout wins over Israel and Serbia in 2020, we are now back into post-mortem territory. It's a dreary business.

It's particularly grim because Clarke, a strong man and an overwhelmingly popular choice as head coach, is looking shaky. If Clarke, with all his experience, can't move this team forward then who can?

The team he sent out on Wednesday was quite obviously the wrong one, just as the team he sent out against the Czech Republic in the Euros was the wrong one.

In that June match, he picked Jack Hendry at the back and then dropped him for England, he played Stuart Armstrong in midfield then dropped him for Billy Gilmour, he played an out-of-form Ryan Christie up front and dropped him for Che Adams. He left out Callum McGregor for some reason, then recalled him. He stated in the preamble to the tournament that Scott McTominay would play in the midfield and then he moved him back to centre-half at Wembley.

Scotland's Steven Naismith and Steve Clarke in the dugout in Denmark
Steve Clarke (right) is a popular choice as head coach but "looking shaky"

All of those changes worked against England, but their necessity told you much about what Clarke came up with for that Czech game. And it was England. No extra motivation required. No need to tell the Scots to fire into their opposite numbers. That intensity was there in spades that night, but the belligerence and self-belief has been missing far too often in other games.

For all the talk of the quality players at Clarke's disposal, for all the medals some of them have won with their clubs and the lofty status of some of those clubs, for all the chat about how tight they are as a team, for the most part, Scotland are a passive, unimpressive collective. You look at them as individual players and its easy to think they can be a fine team, but again and again the whole looks less than the sum of the parts.

Clarke needed to fix a personnel problem on the right-hand side against Denmark. His solution was not just to move one square peg and put it in a round hole but two.

He could have put Ryan Fraser in that right wing-back slot and kept Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson in their normal positions but didn't. He could have put Jack Hendry in there. He could have drafted in Anthony Ralston.

Maybe (probably) none of those players would have made a blind bit of difference against the outstanding Joakim Maehle, but these are the calls Clarke has to get right.

He put Robertson in there and he was uncomfortable. As a consequence, he had to put Tierney into Robertson's spot at left wing-back and he didn't look comfortable either. Clarke over-complicated it.

All of this was ripped apart at half-time and a more cohesive unit was sent out after the break, but it was all over by then. In truth, it was all over after 15 minutes.

Defeat was not a surprise. It was the manner of it. Had Scotland lost 2-0 in a properly competitive game then there would have been disappointment but not total dejection. Denmark are a terrific side.

Scotland's John McGinn scores against Austria
John McGinn, who scored in the 2-2 draw with Austria at Hampden, should return to the side in Vienna

The second half was an improvement, but if we're now seriously mining those second 45 minutes for positives then things have reached a truly sorry place. The Danes eased up, secured in the knowledge that victory was theirs. Scotland's "better" second half was utterly irrelevant.

Against Moldova and, more importantly against Austria, Scotland will have players back in the fold that were not around in Copenhagen, but it's not like these players are dropping out of space. This is not just about that awful first half in Copenhagen. These other players have been around in previous disappointments.

They were all there when the Nations League went south with a loss to Israel - McTominay, John McGinn, Stephen O'Donnell, even the long-absent Ryan Jack, all started. Tierney played left centre-half, Robertson played left wing-back. Clarke didn't throw any self-defeating curve balls with his selection that night - and still they lost.

To blame lack of key personnel for the dismal defeat to the Danes would be to ignore all the times that went before when a fully-loaded Scotland fell in a heap.

They've now won just one of their last nine competitive games - against the Faroes. Clarke's predecessors have been pulverised for delivering those kinds of numbers.

Those goals in Copenhagen, so early and so easy, the general disarray and the abject lack of mettle in the Scotland ranks when the game was still a game and not a stroll, were completely dispiriting.

The manager and the players keep telling us they believe in their own ability to make it to another major championship. After an empty performance, those look like empty words.

If they believe, actually believe, then they don't look like they do. Against Serbia and England, they had something about them, an aggression, an attitude of getting in the faces of exalted opponents and making their lives tough. Only fleetingly have they found that boldness.

A win over Moldova is likely - the visitors haven't won a qualifier in 17 attempts dating back more than two years - but then it's the trip to Austria. There will be fighting talk from the Scotland camp beforehand, but as they big up their chances of an upset, they might be as well to take a moment and think about the maxim of action speaking louder than words.

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