In 1998, Tom Hanks starred in the hit movie Saving Private Ryan about a team of men on an almost impossible mission to rescue Matt Damon (Private Ryan) from deep within Germany. Their journey was long and treacherous with several heartbreaks along the way but eventually they made it to their goal and recued Ryan. 1998 was also the last year that Scotland qualified for a major international tournament – the World Cup in France. Like Saving Private Ryan, Scotland has been on a long journey that has seen eight heartbreaking attempts to qualify ending in failure. They have lost managers along the way (seven in total) but still they have persevered. After all Scotland’s goal is to finally end their 16 year hiatus from the international stage and make it to one of footballs premiere events. Now bossed by Gordon Strachan, optimism was high ahead of their new campaign – Euro 2016, with pride and belief firmly back in place. That was until the draw was made which has placed Scotland in one of the toughest groups, facing up to World Champions Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar.
With the German’s favourite to claim top spot, all eyes are focused on the second automatic qualification spot (now in effect since UEFA changed the number of teams competing in the finals from 16 to 24). Qualification won’t be easy especially given the teams Scotland has to face. Poland, inspired by their captain Robert Lewandowski will be no push over’s as they showed against England in the last World Cup qualifying sections. Despite having an aging squad, Scotland will face a strong Polish side that are highly organized and like to attack on the break. The two teams are schedule to play each other in a friendly in March which will help them both to eye up potential weaknesses or hidden dangers. How much will be on show is unknown as both managers will be mindful to keep their cards close to their chests ahead of the qualifying games that actually matter.
The Republic of Ireland have been reborn with a new manager in Martin O’Neill, supported by the fiery Roy Keane, and will be looking to make Euro 2016 after failing to clinch a place at the World Cup this summer in Brazil. With a host of exciting youngsters like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick coming into the team, O’Neill is building for the future. The need for freshness has never been greater with talisman Robbie Keane, Andy Reid, Richard Dunne and Shay Given reaching the twig light years of their careers. Keane in particular has yet to commit to another campaign which could come as some welcome news to Scotland. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker has lead the line for Ireland for well over a decade now and has been their biggest threat. But general wear and tear plus a desire to prolong his career in the USA could force the former Inter Milan and Spurs striker to call it a day. With or without Keane, Ireland still pose a realistic threat to Scotland’s chances of qualifying and Strachan is well aware of this.
Whilst Georgia and Gibraltar are outsiders in the group to qualify, both are out to prove something which could spell trouble for Scotland. Georgia continues to build their reputation on the international stage and under former Newcastle and Georgia legend, Temuri Ketsbaia they are making significant strides. He has built a side for the future with Rostov’s Jano Ananidze and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Levan Kenia notable stand outs. Their biggest problem has been upfront where they have failed to fill the boots of former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze but the so far uncapped Giorgi Iluridze, who plies his trade with Hakduk Spilt, may provide the answer. Gibraltar will embark on an historic campaign when they kick off against Poland in September. It will be only their fifth ever match and their very first qualification game after being granted UEFA membership early last year. The team is made up of mostly semi professionals but will be out to show that they are not just there to make up the numbers. Like San Marino and Andorra before, they will likely defend in numbers in the hope of pulling off a draw, much like they did against Slovakia last November.
This may be Scotland’s best chance of qualifying for a while with two automatic spots up for grabs and a best placed third spot available too. They will need full points against Georgia and Gibraltar and a minimum of two wins from four against Poland and Ireland to stand a chance. They will also need Germany to do a clean sweep of the group to make it an even playing field and a three horse race. Strachan will not be expecting much from the two games against Germany but given recent history where Scotland have shocked the likes of France and Holland with victories, maybe snatching a point or three against Joachim Low’s team is not necessarily out of the question. If they can reach the twenty point mark, qualification to Euro 2016 could be within their grasps. The irony of a return to France has not been lost but there is still a long and treacherous journey ahead before they can achieve their goal.