Scotland have improved greatly under Steve Clarke and are now on the cusp of promotion to the top tier of the Nations League, but they have their work cut against Serbia on Thursday. The Scots find themselves in the play-off final by virtue of an extremely favourable draw against Israel in the semi-final and even then, they had to navigate a nail-biting penalty shootout to progress.
Serbia, on the other hand, had the unenviable task of taking on Erling Haaland and an in-form Norway side away from home to book their place in the decider. The Serbs have struggled in their Nations League campaign and currently sit bottom of their group, but they are undeniably a better team than Scotland and should have too much for them in this most pivotal of games.
PHIL THOMPSON: My verdict on Scotland’s chances in Serbia
Goalscoring responsibility may fail to Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic on Thursday night with Aleksandar Mitrovic badly out of form at Fulham. Tadic has scored seven in his last seven for Ajax but has failed to score for Serbia since netting in a 2-2 draw with Ukraine in last year’s Euro Qualifiers.
The Ajax frontman may have failed to score this year for his country, but has only failed to score for Serbia in a calendar year on one occasion since 2011.
He has an excellent chance to put that record right on Thursday against a Scotland side that still looks porous at the back, even if it has looked more solid in recent games.
Tadic takes penalties when he starts for Serbia, and with VAR awarding an increasingly high volume of spot-kicks this year, he has an even greater chance of scoring on Thursday.
Thursday’s play-off is likely to follow in the footsteps of last month’s semi-finals by being incredibly tense and cagey. Both Scotland and Serbia prevailed in very even games last month where no team gave an inch to their opponents and the result was an extremely drab set of play-offs. With even more at stake this time around, both sides are likely to be just as cagey, if not more.
Scotland will attempt to sit in and frustrate Serbia, whose attacking cohort of Tadic, Milinkovic-Savic, Luka Jovic, and Mitrovic is genuinely frightening, and the Scots should have some success if their recent games are anything to go by.
Scotland have not trailed at half time in their last five games and will hope to continue that trend on Thursday night in Belgrade. They will be compact and cautious in the hope that they can steal a winner in the second half, but their resistance could break as the game reaches the business end when legs and minds start to tire.
Make no mistake, this could be decided by one defensive error.
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