Steve Clarke’s profession of qualified disappointment in the absence of Erling Haaland was delivered with a passing twinkle in his steely eye, but with its focus firmly on the bigger prize.
This was no idle boast. This is a Scotland coach who, not content with his defenders having to contend with both Haaland and Alvaro Morata in their qualifying group, deliberately sought out the opportunity to pitch them against Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe in challenge matches.
Purposely putting his players in the path of not two but four of the world’s deadliest strikers in a four-month period caused a few brows to wrinkle, and they became full-on furrows when all four of them succeeded in finding Scotland’s net.
But Clarke, quite rightly, would ask what material harm any of it did. None of those four goals have prevented him from achieving the sole goal of 2023’s international calendar, that of guiding Scotland into the finals, and none of them will count against his team’s record in Germany.
And it is there that Clarke knows his true legend can be written. He knows that the piece of history on offer to him is to be the first coach to bring Scotland through a major tournament group, and he knows that such a stage is where the top-tier talent awaits.
By giving his defenders, many of whom would seldom come across them in club play, advance exposure to such prolific stars, Clarke provided physical experience of their methods, and muscle memory of what to do – or not to – in return. Thereby does he decrease the likelihood of their mistakes being made when they can least be afforded.
It may yet not be enough. But it won’t be from shying away from turning the biggest stones for fear of what lurks beneath.