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Why Scotland failed to qualify for the World Cup

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It was all perfect.

After having just four points from their first four games of qualifying, Scotland were a win away from a World Cup play-off spot.

They started so well, Leigh Griffiths stroking the ball past Jan Oblak in a third of the time it took England on Thursday.

The tartan army had just seen their side become the first to score away in Ljubljana, only 45 minutes separated Scotland and the next stage of World Cup qualification.

But then the collapse. Slovenia were supposed to be out of it, nothing to play for. The Scots were taken by surprise defending poorly when substitute Roman Bezjak, who plays his football for SV Darmstadt in Bundesliga 2, scored twice to take the game out of their reach.

Scotland may have pulled a goal back through Robert Snodgrass but realistically, the moment Bezjak’s side-footed finish hit the back of the net, the dream was over.

The national side will rue dropped points at home to Lithuania and heavy 3-0 defeats away to Slovakia and England. Ultimately though, Scotland have now not played at a major international tournament since 1998. The last time the Scots qualified their opponents Slovenia had only been a nation for seven years.

Scotland were the only home nation to miss out on the 2016 European Championships. Fans could only look on in envy as England, Northern Ireland and Wales all advanced to the knockout stages. As Wales dispatched Belgium 3-1 in the quarter finals some may have imagined what might have been. World Cup qualification would have been redemption.

Already the finger is being pointed towards manager Gordon Strachan. His team selections and tactics have come under fire throughout the campaign and David Moyes and Michael O’Neill have already been linked to replace him should a vacancy arise.

His continuous loyalty towards his squad has hampered the introduction of many in form players such as Callum McGregor of Celtic. Frustratingly, Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong were both introduced to the team months after they had been playing at the top of their game for their clubs.

Strachan may defend himself by pointing out Scotland’s impressive run of four wins and two draws in their final six qualifying matches. Additionally, since taking on the role as Scotland manager in 2013, Strachan has amassed a win percentage of 47.5%, the highest of any Scottish manager to take on more than 10 games since Tommy Docherty in the 1970s. But statistics only tell half the story.

In the years leading up to his appointment Scotland were undoubtedly the second best of the four home nation teams. Currently the side is 40th in the FIFA World Rankings, 23 spots below the third highest ranked home nation side, Northern Ireland.

A lot has happened in Scottish football in the last ten years. Rangers have been liquidated, relegated to the third division and subsequently been promoted back to the top-flight. Celtic may have won every Scottish League title since but in Europe have lost 5-0 to Paris Saint-Germain and 6-1 and 7-0 against Barcelona.

It is not too long ago that Rangers reached the Uefa Cup final with a team including six Scottish internationals and a further five Scots on the bench. Similarly, Celtic were regulars in the knockout phases of the Champions League and in 2007 comfortably defeated the reigning European Champions AC Milan 2-1 who’s squad included: Nesta, Gattuso, Seedorf, Inzaghi and Kaka.

Nine of the squad picked for this week’s international fixtures play in the Scottish Premier League. A league which has essentially gone from a competitive, unpredictable and exhilarating division producing players able to compete with Europe’s elite to a dull, dry, ceremonial procession to an inevitable Celtic victory. This apathetic league is more of a factor behind the failings of Scotland’s national team than management.

In the near future, the Scottish FA will assess the reasons behind yet another failed qualification bid. They may even consider Strachan’s immediate future in spite of calls to keep him on from high profile players.

But ultimately, of the European qualifiers, all the group leaders’ domestics leagues have a higher UEFA coefficient than Scotland’s. (With the exception of Iceland). And this lower standard amongst its domestic clubs and therefore lower standard of choice for the national team, is the biggest obstacle Scotland faces in its path to qualify for a major international tournament.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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