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ERIC NICOLSON: Can Scotland replace Billy Gilmour, shackle Ivan Perisic, impose their game on Croatia and score a goal?

Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams could be key men.
Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams could be key men.

It’s do or die for Scotland against Croatia in their third and final Group D game.

Sporting immortality awaits Steve Clarke’s team, with yet another glorious (or not so glorious) failure the heart-breaking alternative.

Eric Nicolson looks at four key talking-points ahead of the match that must be won.


1 Billy The Irreplaceable?

There is no sugar-coating it, to lose Billy Gilmour to a positive Covid-19 test was a horrible way to start the build-up to Scotland’s biggest match in nearly a quarter of a century.

You can’t wax lyrical about the impact the 20-year-old made on his first start for his country and then attempt to downplay it after he’s ruled out.

Now the scale of this young man’s talents has been established, it is all the more painful to be deprived of those talents so soon.

Gilmour’s off-the-ball work in closing down space for the English full-backs and wide attackers was nearly as impressive as his control of the football with an opponent at his back or shoulder.

There isn’t anybody in the squad who will be able to take his place alongside Callum McGregor and do that tempo-setting job in tandem with the Celtic man to such a high standard.

John Fleck is probably the closest to a like-for-like understudy but I can’t foresee Steve Clarke going down that route.

Nor should he drag Scott McTominay back into the midfield. The back five was a collective success story in London and must not be broken up.

So although he will be out of his comfort zone, Stuart Armstrong is the obvious replacement.

Armstrong might not have the speed of thought and positional awareness of Gilmour but he’s an intelligent and versatile midfielder who can ensure the drop-off doesn’t have to be fatal to Scotland’s hopes.

2 Stephen O’Donnell was better but……

There was over-reaction from some to Stephen O’Donnell’s performance against the Czech Republic and there was over-reaction from some at the opposite end of the scale after the England game as well.

Clarke has clearly decided he is to be his right-back for the duration of the tournament and the manager’s talking-up of him at every opportunity is to be expected in that context.

Just because O’Donnell was much better on Friday evening than he was last Monday afternoon doesn’t mean his limitations at this level have all gone away, however.

O’Donnell’s part of the pitch will be targeted by Croatia. Nothing has changed in that regard.

And they have one of their best players to do the targeting.

There are far superior full-backs than O’Donnell who would toil with Ivan Perisic running at them and his equalising goal against the Czech Republic is all the warning Scotland need – and all the encouragement Croatia need.

Doubling up on Raheem Sterling and then Jack Grealish worked a treat.

If and when Perisic gets O’Donnell back-pedalling, McTominay being on hand to help his team-mate out is going to be just as important, if not more so, as it was at Wembley.

The English wide forwards are either over-hyped or still learning their trade. Perisic is a master of his craft.

3 Is the tank empty after Wembley?

Scotland let the enormity of the occasion and the desire to get a good result inhibit them in their group opener, whereas for game number two they harnessed that adrenaline into heightened focus.

You could argue that the Clarke game plan and team selection markedly improved from one fixture to the next but so too did the execution.

This will be an inexperienced tournament team coming up against one of the most battle-hardened, if not THE most battle-hardened, at the Euros.

There will be no shocks.

Croatia will endeavour to play through Luka Modric and Perisic.

They’ll be patient, content to go backwards and sideways for a as long as it takes in the hope that chinks appear in the Scottish backline.

What we can also say with certainty is their last 45 minutes of football was far more impressive than the three 45s that preceded it.

Luka Modric v the Czech Republic.

Scotland can’t expect to out-perform Croatia with matching-up their styles, particularly now that we’re being denied the Modric v Gilmour head-to-head.

The World Cup finalists are a team coming to the end of their lifespan.

The Scots have to make them feel as if they have nothing left to give.

The question, arguably the one that will define the outcome of the match, is can Clarke’s men summon up the emotional and physical intensity they will need to carry that off or has Wembley taken too much out of them?

4 One thing is certain – Scotland have to score

For all the promise that this could be the most successful tournament our nation has ever known, it could also be the first time in nine World Cup or European Championship finals that a Scottish side has failed to score a single goal.

The Scots are the only team in this competition yet to find the net.

So what needs to change?

It’s unlikely to be the selection up front this time.

Broadly speaking, Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes combined at Wembley and were successful in getting the team up the pitch.

What you see is what you get with Dykes. He’ll never be a penalty box predator and it’s far likelier that Adams is going to be the Hampden hero.

Hopefully he will be a more relaxed presence than the one who slashed at a back-post shot deep into the second half on Friday night.

Scotland’s set-pieces have to improve too, especially their corners.

They have presented little to no threat thus far.

Also, if this game turns into the tense and tight contest it is likely to, the substitutes will need to make their mark.

Dejan Lovren would happily battle away with Dykes all night long, maybe even Adams, but Ryan Fraser darting and dashing at his ankles would expose the sort of weaknesses on the ground that used to have Liverpool fans watching through their fingers.

And, on this occasion, with Scotland possibly requiring a two-goal victory, David Turnbull must have a strong chance of getting his first taste of Euro 2020 action.

Whoever is on the pitch when the game is up for grabs, composure is the watchword.

It’s the one thing the Scots have yet to display.