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Duncan Shearer column: Scotland’s World Cup hopes boosted by battle for places

Scotland head coach Steve Clarke.
Scotland head coach Steve Clarke.

How refreshing is it to be approaching a new qualifying campaign for Scotland full of enthusiasm?

After leading the nation to this summer’s European Championship finals, it feels as if the Tartan Army has fallen in love with the national team once again.

But, most important of all, it is clear Steve Clarke has got players wanting to pull on the dark blue jersey.

We’ve got competition for places, new faces in the squad and debates about guys who have not been selected. That tells me we’re in a good place.

Go back a couple of years and Leigh Griffiths would have been one of the first names on the teamsheet. Right now he cannot make the squad.

Leigh Griffiths. Picture by Darrell Benns

Even Lawrence Shankland, who had come into the squad during the last campaign, has been omitted for the opening games of the World Cup qualifying campaign, which gets under way this week.

I would guess it was between the Dundee United striker and Kevin Nisbet for the final striking berth in the squad, and, if we are judging the two on their return at their respective squads this season, then it is the Hibernian man who deserves to get the nod.

Lyndon Dykes was a certainty, while Oli McBurnie is the workhorse of the forward line, and I can see why was picked as I know from experience how hard a shift it is playing up front for Scotland.

That leaves the other new face in the squad, Southampton’s Che Adams. I know there have been rumblings of discontent at the fact he did not commit to Scotland when first approached a few years ago, but he was a young lad still trying to establish himself at club level at the time.

At 24, he is now starring on a regular basis in a very good Saints team in England and I really don’t care what his motivation is for choosing to play for Scotland. The important thing is he wants to be there.

Southampton’s Che Adams (right).

Elsewhere, David Turnbull is knocking on the door for selection and there is little doubt in my mind his time will come, but we have so many promising youngsters, especially in midfield, and it has made that area so competitive.

It is hard to ignore the likes of Scott McTominay, Kenny McLean, John McGinn and Stuart Armstrong, who are all playing well in England, as well as the Scottish Premiership players who have been named.

On paper we’re in decent shape overall and we should be approaching our opening three matches of the campaign with confidence.

Austria will be tough, but not impossible, while we have played Israel so often in recent years the players must know each other’s boot sizes by now.

With all due respect to the Faroe Islands, who visit Hampden next week, failure to take all three points would be a shock.

If we can take seven points out of nine, then we will have made a decent start.

Dons need to look over their shoulder

Aberdeen should forget about catching Hibernian. Livingston have become the team the Dons should be most worried about.

The focus on catching Hibs has been so high up the agenda in recent weeks that I had almost forgotten about Livi – but a quick glance at the league table makes for worrying reading.

I know the form of David Martindale’s side has dipped after a remarkable run of wins, but they are still inching closer to Aberdeen and, if the Dons believe they can still make up the seven-point gap on Hibs, then why should Livi not be fancying their chances of overturning the five-point deficit?

Aberdeen will make the trip to Almondvale after the split and at this stage that game will seem like Livi’s cup final.

The Dons are limping towards the finish line now with Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Dundee United the continuation in a disappointing trend of results.

The one positive was the display of Jack MacKenzie. He’s a big strong lad and did not put a foot wrong.

But the bigger picture is the same one we’ve seen for weeks now. Aberdeen just cannot score.

Aberdeen’s Jack Mackenzie (29) is tackled.

Cup shocks unlikely for Highland teams

It is great to see the Scottish Cup return tonight, but due to the long break I’m not expecting any shocks in the ties involving Highland League clubs.

I will be at Dudgeon Park to watch league champions Brora take on Hearts, but, after such a long break in action, I don’t expect any side to be pressing high up the pitch.

Across all the ties, I expect they’ll be trying to stay in the game as long as possible and hope they get a chance.