The five players to inspire a Group F fightback

By Christopher Duffy

As the dust settles on Scotland’s 3-0 Wembley defeat to England, and with the nation’s hopes of qualifying for Russia 2018 hanging by a thread, is now the time to scrutinise manager Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad selections?

“He (Strachan) is the best man but I don’t think he is picking the best players he has available”. Charlie Adam was one of eight Premier League players to be omitted from the former Middlesbrough and Celtic managers Scotland squad to face England. While eight players playing at the highest level of English football failed to make the cut, John McGinn, who ply’s his trade with Hibernian in the Scottish Championship, did.

Charlie Adam’s criticism of Gordon Strachan’s squad selections only seems to be scraping the surface of a deeper problem though, with strange omissions and surprise inclusions having become a staple of Scotland’s Russia 2018 campaign so far. The non-inclusion of players such as Oliver Burke, Steven Naismith and Shaun Maloney has been baffling. Burke, Scotland’s most expensive player at £13 million, has found himself frozen out after a fantastic display against Malta and a player of Naismith’s work-rate can always be relied upon to put in a shift upfront, while Maloney was easily Scotland’s most consistent player during the Euro 2016 campaign.

With yet another crumbling Scotland campaign on the ropes, changes surely need to be made, and quickly. Strachan’s over-reliance on tried and tested players has left the national team in somewhat of a stagnant state, with the same old players now failing to justify their managers faith in their selections. If Strachan and Scotland are to move forward and salvage anything on the road to Russia, and with little to lose, surely now is the right time to give the forgotten men a second chance. New faces would bring a much needed boost to a currently stale Scotland squad, and breathe a breath of fresh-air into an ailing effort.

If Scotland are to reach their first major European tournament since France ’98, a Russian revival has to be on the cards, and an overhauling of the squad has to Strachan’s first point of call.

Gordon Strachan, take note, as here are the five players who could lift Scottish spirits and inspire a Group F fightback:

1. Ross McCormack (Striker, Aston Villa)

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With the likes of Steven Fletcher and Chris Martin failing to inspire upfront for Scotland, Aston Villa’s new £12-million-pound man must be wondering just what he has to do in order to receive a Scotland recall from Strachan. He set up Ikechi Anya brilliantly for the only goal in a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in Prague back in March, and put in a tireless shift in the 1-0 loss to Italy in Malta in May. Despite a stuttering start to the season with Villa, McCormack is a clever forward with a proven Championship goal-scoring record. His record of 23 goals and 11 assists for Fulham during the 2015/16 season speaks for itself. It can be difficult to incorporate McCormack into a winning system, but by doing so successfully by giving him the freedom of the number 10 role would give Scotland a different dimension upfront. A natural finisher with a keen eye for goal, McCormack could be the player to give Scotland a much needed injection of goals.

2. Tom Cairney (Midfielder, Fulham)

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A left-footed, creative midfielder who is very comfortable on the ball, 25-year-old Cairney is exactly the type of player that Scotland need in order to boost an often flat and lacklustre midfield. A player who is very adaptable, Cairney can play wide on the right, cutting in onto his left foot, from deep, taking the ball off the centre-backs and starting attacks, or in the ‘hole’, playing forwards in. Cairney’s composure on the ball is a key attribute of his game, and he also has an eye for a pass as well as an ability to shoot from range. Cairney is a player in fine form at the moment, and already has four goals and three assists in 15 league appearances for Fulham this season. Having already been capped for Scotland at U19 and U21 level, the English born Cairney is eligible to play for Scotland though his Scottish father. At this rate, it shouldn’t be long before he receives his first full call-up from Strachan to the national team, and the sooner this happens the better.

3. Matt Phillips (Winger, West Bromwich Albion)

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A player who bases his game on pace, power and strength. Phillips is always looking to take opposition players on, get crosses into the box and isn’t afraid to have a shot at goal. At 25-years-old, Phillips is hardly the finished article and still has a lot more to bring to his game. West Brom’s number 10 arrived at the Midlands club for £5.5 million from QPR in the summer and has since become a first team regular under Tony Pulis. The winger, who is capable of playing on either side, gave a man of the match performance in West Brom’s 2-1 win over reigning Premier League champions Leicester, contributing a goal and an assist for the Baggies. It was the 25-year-old’s tenth Premier League appearance of the season, but he is yet to be selected in Strachan’s squad for a 2018 World Cup qualifying match, and last pulled on a Scotland jersey during the 1-0 friendly defeat to Italy in May. Phillips is a player who can make an immediate impact in the final third, and his goals and assists are much needed for the remainder of Scotland’s Group F matches.

4. Jordan Rhodes (Striker, Middlesbrough)

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A mobile yet equally powerful striker, Jordan Rhodes is your typical ‘fox-in-the-box’ striker. The former Blackburn player has struggled for game time at the Riverside this season, having been limited to only one Premier League start since Boro’s return to the Premier League having fallen behind Alvaro Negredo, Cristhian Stuani and David Nugent in the pecking order. Despite his struggles at Middlesbrough, Rhodes is a clinical finisher with a record of 91 goals and 16 assists in 189 Championship appearances. Friday 11th November marked five years to the day since Rhodes was given his Scotland debut by Craig Levin, and he scored three goals in his first five caps including a double against Luxembourg in November 2012. However, the 26-year-old has rarely featured under Strachan and hasn’t played for the national team since providing two assists after coming off the bench in the 6-1 Euro 2016 qualifying win over Gibraltar last March.

5. Craig Bryson (Midfielder, Derby County)

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“If I had a squad of players with Craig Bryson’s qualities, I would be a very happy man”. Craig Bryson is playing under his fifth manager in five years as a Derby County player, and all have spotted and valued his contribution to the team. Current manger Nigel Pearson is no different, and he has high praise for the player who was signed from Kilmarnock in the summer of 2011. A player with high levels of commitment, Bryson has quietly become one of the most effective players in the Championship, and has been a first-team regular during his time at the iPro Stadium. He arrived at Derby as something of an unknown quantity, but come the end of the 2011/12 season he won all three of the cub’s Player of the Year Awards. The box-to-box central midfielder provides bags of energy and calmness to Derby’s midfield, and his trademark bursts into the box have seen him become a fans favourite. After scoring 16 goals during the 2013/14 season, he was again named Derby County’s Player of the Season, as well as being named in the PFA Championship Team of the Season. Due to a knee injury, Bryson endured a frustrating start to the 2015/16 season, but after the popular Scot returned to action in October he played a key part of the squad in the second half of the season as Derby earned a play-off berth. His performances for Derby saw him recalled to the Scotland squad for their end of season friendly matches against Italy and France, and having played his part in the former, it shouldn’t be long before Gordon Strachan comes knocking again.

The Wildcard – Steven Caulker (Defender, QPR)

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A controversial choice, but after Scotland’s defensive horror-show against England, Gordon Strachan has to look at all of the options at his disposal in the centre-back position. With the likes of Danny Wilson and Grant Hanley having failed to live up to their early promise, it is difficult to see where Scotland’s next top centre-back is going to come from. While the likes of Hearts’ John Souttar build experience in the U21 squad, a player of Caulker’s calibre would be a quick-fix for a problematic position. Hanley’s performances so far in Russia 2018 qualifying have been less than assuring, with his lack of pace and mobility leaving him prone to an error. For a player of his stature and size, he is also beaten far too often in the air as well. Caulker is a gifted player, with a wealth of experience in the Premier League. A strong and athletic centre-back with great presence, Caulker would go a long way to helping Scotland patch the heart of their defensive issues. A versatile player, Jürgen Klopp even played him upfront during his loan-spell at Liverpool during the 2015/16 season. Although Caulker has not given up hope of earning an England recall, he has not ruled out switching his allegiance to Scotland. Caulker is a player who is already on Strachan’s radar, and Mark McGhee admitted that he was ‘someone who does fit the criteria as I understand it’. Caulker is eligible to play for Scotland through his grandmother, and his only appearance for England came against Sweden in a 4-2 friendly loss in November 2012, an occasion he also marked with a goal. Although it is highly unlikely that Caulker will called into the Scotland squad by Strachan for the remainder of Scotland’s Group F matches, any future call-up would be extremely beneficial to the Scotland squad for future qualifying campaigns.

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