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The key talking points ahead of Scotland and Ukraine’s World Cup play-off semi

Scotland prepare to face Ukraine (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Scotland prepare to face Ukraine (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Scotland host Ukraine in a World Cup play-off semi-final clash on Wednesday, with the winner earning a crack at Wales in the final in Cardiff on Sunday.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the talking points ahead of what promises to be an emotional evening at Hampden.

Goodwill for Ukraine

Ukraine will have widespread support (Mike Egerton/PA)

The eyes of the world will be on Hampden as Ukraine play their first competitive match since their territory was invaded by Russia three months ago. This play-off was rescheduled from its initial March date due to the impact of the war, but now Oleksandr Petrakov and his players are aiming to give their embattled nation a lift by trying to qualify for the World Cup amid the most brutal backdrop imaginable. There will be a groundswell of support for the visiting side from the rest of the world for obvious reasons, while even Scotland great Graeme Souness claims he would like to see Ukraine defeat his own nation. It remains to be seen if the sense of patriotic pride the Ukrainians will be fuelled by at Hampden will be enough to override the fact they have been unable to play a proper international fixture together for more than six months.

Scots momentum

Scotland are unbeaten in eight games (Jane Barlow/PA)

Both sides go into the match on the back of unbeaten runs. Ukraine finished 2021 with five draws and two victories from their seven matches after losing to England in the quarter-finals of last summer’s European Championship, although they have been denied the chance to build any momentum under Petrakov in the early part of 2022 because of the war. Scotland, by contrast, had a couple of friendlies in March – against Poland and Austria – in which they were able to extend their undefeated sequence to eight successive matches since they last lost to Denmark at the start of September. Morale is high in Steve Clarke’s squad.

Tierney’s replacement

Scott McKenna
Scott McKenna (right) has been in good form (Isaac Parkin/PA)

Kieran Tierney’s injury-enforced absence raises a selection issue for Scotland manager Clarke. Who plays on the left of defence in place of the marauding Arsenal wing-back-turned-centre-back? Scott McKenna has yet to fully settle at international level, but he has been in brilliant form for Nottingham Forest. Liam Cooper appears to be the other candidate. Those two players are out-and-out centre-backs, however. If Clarke prefers a more attack-minded left-centre-back in the mould of Tierney, Bologna teenager Aaron Hickey – who played there for Hearts on occasion – would appear to fit the bill.

Memories of 2020

Scotland won their last play-off against Serbia (Novak Djurovic/PA)

After more than two decades of failing to reach a major tournament, Scotland finally found a way to qualify when they overcame Israel and then Serbia in the play-offs for Euro 2020. Several members of the current squad played their part in those high-stakes, ground-breaking matches late in 2020. Following years of glorious – and not-so-glorious – failure, the knowledge that they have previously proven they have the mentality to deal with the pressure of such win-or-bust fixtures will surely stand the Scots in good stead for what is guaranteed to be a tense night in Glasgow.

Robbo’s pre-match party – harmless or needless?

Andy Robertson partied with his club on Sunday (Danny Lawson/PA)

There were some murmurs of mild discontent among Scotland supporters on social media on Sunday after footage emerged of captain Andy Robertson enjoying a beer during Liverpool’s celebratory end-of-season open-top bus parade just three days before a huge match for his country. While the vast majority seem to be of the mind that the 28-year-old did nothing wrong and that he possesses the professionalism to have ensured any boozing he indulged in would not affect his preparations for Ukraine, the Scotland skipper could do with delivering a big performance at Hampden to quell any suggestion that he may have needlessly taken his eye off the ball.