Alex McLeish’s first run as Scotland manager famously reached its end after narrowly failing to qualify for Euro 2008 ahead of Italy. His current run may not be nearing an end yet, but he might reflect on the fact that there will be calls for his head if they don’t top a Nations League group also containing Israel and Albania. Having won the home tie against this opposition, Scotland were soundly outplayed and lost 2-1 in Haifa; now they can’t afford a slip-up if they hope to finish above Israel.
For the home side, beating Scotland is an achievable goal, but it won’t allow them to top the group and have a shot at direct Euro 2020 qualification, as they cannot finish above Israel. They’re also hamstrung by the injury-related absence of star striker Armando Sadiku, and manager Christian Panucci will have to rely on a collection of players without a proven international scorer among them.
Albania vs Scotland Prediction: Albania 0-1 Scotland
Albania could probably deal with either the demotivation of knowing they can’t top the group, or the loss of their key striker, but both together is a bitter pill to swallow, and even in Scotland’s relatively poor state, McLeish should be able to pull a performance out of his players that takes them into a home game in which any win over Israel should see them promoted to League B, and give them a chance of Euro 2020 qualification. The loss of Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith hasn’t made the task easier, though.
Our recommended tip: Only Scotland score
Sadiku has eleven goals in 33 internationals, as well as Albania’s only ever goal in the finals of a major competition; no striker in his absence is even close to as reliable as the Levante man. With Scotland able to call on the core of a suddenly free-scoring Celtic side, and Bournemouth’s irrepressible winger Ryan Fraser, the visitors simply need to keep organised and they should be able to expose any gaps left by their hosts. Dafabet have odds of 9/4 (3.25) on Scotland being the only team to score here, and it’s a punt worth taking.
The good news for Scotland fans is that their side has a 100% winning record against Albania, and has never even conceded a goal when playing them. Of course, Scotland fans have developed enough of a fatalistic attitude to life to recognise the setup for punchline when they hear it, so here it is: they’ve only played them once. That came two months ago in Glasgow, and after a goalless first half Besart Djimsiti’s own goal gave Scotland the lead early in the first half. On 68 minutes, Naismith added a second to secure three points for the Tartan Army. If Scotland can maintain the same record, then they’ll be in good shape for the group.
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Players to watch: Taulant Xhaka & Ryan Fraser
Taulant is one of two brothers – the other being Switzerland and Arsenal’s Granit – born in Kosovo in the early 90s who have gone on to play international football for different countries. Currently at Swiss club Basel, the elder brother is an accomplished full-back and defensive midfielder who can pick out a pass and dictate the tempo for his side. Scotland will need to keep a close eye on him to ensure he’s not given time on the ball, as even without Sadiku in the side he’s still liable to create openings.
Much of the praise for Bournemouth’s early-season success has justifiably fallen at the feet of striker Callum Wilson and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, but Fraser’s part in the story deserves acclaim too. The diminutive left-winger has scored three and assisted in six goals for his club this season, and his dribbling ability is liable to give his marker tonight a serious case of “twisted blood”. He may score the goal that gives his side the win or, with his crossing ability, tee one up for whoever plays through the middle.