Steve Clarke is unaware of the ill will towards Scotland as they prepare to welcome Ukraine. It’s just that the backdrop to arguably Scotland’s biggest game in a generation is so unusual that it sparks a freak discussion.
Clarke’s role is to make sure his players can set their sights on a possible World Cup place instead of the circumstances surrounding Ukraine before this playoff semifinal. Neutral support will sit with the Hampden Park visitors, but the Scottish message seems perfectly clear.
“We have to focus on the football game and I don’t think the Ukrainian team wants it any other way,” the Scotland manager said. “Their coach has said they are ready for the game. We are ready for the game. It’s a football game and I hope the best team wins. I hope we are the best team.
“Definitely not back to normal [in Ukraine]. But we always said that we would be guided by the Ukrainians and how they felt about the situation and what they wanted from the situation. What they want is for their soccer team to be able to get out of the country, properly prepare as they have for the last four weeks, and be ready for a soccer game.
“They want to give their country a boost, which is absolutely 100% understandable. But we also want to go to the World Cup. We want to give our country a boost. It is very difficult to do, but you have to separate the situation in which the Ukrainians find themselves and the context of a football match. It’s a football game and that’s what we focus on.”
In the stands, if not on the pitch, the setting promises to be different from what would normally be expected for a match of this magnitude. “We respect the Ukrainian national anthem and we will applaud the Ukrainian national anthem,” Clarke said. “Then from there, the fans have to sing their hearts out, get behind the team and keep the team going.”
Pressed on whether Scotland could be unknowingly the bad guy in this situation, by ending Ukraine’s World Cup dream, Clarke said: “I don’t always read a lot of media, but I haven’t really felt that as a narrative, that we’re at fault in a way. I’ve never felt that.”
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who will play his 67th cap, insisted it would not be too much of a problem for Scotland to avoid distractions. “Because that’s what we’re trained for,” said the 39-year-old. “We cannot even imagine what is happening in Ukraine. We really have no idea. We cannot understand exactly what all these players are going through, what are the circumstances of each individual. What we have to do is focus on football, be ready and make sure that we are as prepared as possible to try and win the game.”
Clarke shrugged off the social media noise directed at his captain, Andy Robertson, who was photographed with a beer in hand during Liverpool’s end-of-season parade on Sunday. The left-back joined the Scotland camp a day later.
“He’s joined us in a great place and that’s all I’m worried about,” Clarke said. “I don’t care about criticism. It won’t bother Andy and it certainly won’t bother me.
“Liverpool had a great season, when you look at two of the top four trophies in the cabinet, they missed the league by one point and one goal made them. in the final of the champions league. They should have been ahead before conceding that goal. They were very close to quadruple, they have had a great season.
“Ending with two disappointments is something you learn to deal with as a professional player. It’s not like he’s going to have a bad Nations League season-ending game with Scotland. It’s one of the biggest games he’s probably ever faced for his country, so he’ll be ready to play.”
Clarke’s key personal decision revolves around who to play on the left side of his three defenders, given Kieran Tierney’s injury. Liam Cooper from Leeds is likely to fill that role. Bologna’s Aaron Hickey is expected to play at right back because Everton’s Nathan Patterson has not sufficiently recovered from ankle surgery.