If UEFA is looking for evidence to support their argument that the Nations League amounts to more than just a series of glorified friendlies, they should look to Scotland.
Were the upcoming games against Albania and Israel mere friendlies, Alex McLeish would have very little to worry about. They’re not, though, and McLeish has plenty to worry about.
For Scotland, the Nations League has, arguably, been even more important than a conventional qualification campaign.
The nature of this convoluted behemoth of a tournament has favoured smaller nations like Scotland who rather than topple superpowers to make the European Championships, only have to beat teams of similar calibre and navigate a play-off round.
This is why the next week feels like something of an end game for McLeish. An unpopular appointment from the beginning, the former Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Rangers manager has done little to justify his return as national team boss, having previously led Scotland for a year between 2007 and 2008.
From eight games in charge, McLeish has claimed just two wins, with the 2-1 defeat to Israel last month the most damaging of the blows suffered by the Scotland manager so far.
That loss has left the Dark Blues on the back-foot scrambling to salvage their hopes of making the so-called Nations League ‘finals’ next year. No further blows can be suffered.
McLeish simply cannot afford another defeat. His position is on the line. Some wanted the 59-year-old to be sacked after the last international break, when a deep sense of malaise weighed down the national team.
McLeish, a coach who hasn’t held down a job for more than a year since leaving Birmingham in 2011, has become the public face of an out-dated and widely maligned Scottish FA.
It was almost as if McLeish was handed the job in the first place because his phone number was easy to hand. He has only lasted this long because, as a person, McLeish can draw upon a deep well of goodwill across the Scottish game.
With every subpar performance, though, that well gets a little shallower. Normally a good orator, the 59-year-old has even contributed to his own problems with some recent remarks to the media.
Having watched his Scotland side thoroughly dismantled by a Portugal team missing every single one of their big names and key players, McLeish insisted he saw a “good performance.”
His explanation of the current situation concerning Leigh Griffiths’ international future has also been vague.
There’s still a chance that Scotland will pull it off. They will be favourites to beat both Albania and Israel.
From there, Scotland would hope to be handed a favourable draw in next summer’s play-offs. There remains a route to Euro 2020, but everything around McLeish’s team at the moment feels extremely short term in its vision.
Where is the grand plan that should have been put into action following the departure of Gordon Strachan at the end of the last failed qualification campaign?
There is a new generation coming to the fore, a core of young players that includes Andy Robertson, John McGinn, Kieran Tierney and John Souttar… so where is the system to harness them?
What is Scotland’s identity as a team?
Scotland were presented with a shot at reinvention at the start of the year. They could have gone in any number of directions, and yet they have so far stood still.
There has been no progress since Strachan’s exit. In fact, if anything there has been regression.
There’s a reason Hampden’s stands have been largely empty for recent internationals.
There is more to the apathy currently felt by Scotland fans than the poor results suffered over 2018, but nonetheless, the next week feels like something of a managerial end game for McLeish.
He wasn’t the supporters’ choice for the national team job, nor was he the choice of the new Scottish FA chief executive, Ian Maxwell, appointed only in April. McLeish never really had anyone to vouch for him.
Defeat on either Saturday or Tuesday would only underline that further.