LONDON - There is no realistic reason, other than football — like any sport — can always produce a shock, to believe England will not beat Scotland at Hampden Park on Saturday in a 2018 World Cup qualifier.
This is one of the poorest Scotland teams in recent memory and not a single player from Gordon Strachan’s squad would get into England’s panel. Gareth Southgate has the luxury of selecting from the Premier League’s elite teams while Strachan must mix and match those who perform in the Scottish Premiership, the lower reaches of the Premier League and the English Championship, where half his squad plays.
In qualifying matches for the European Championship and World Cup, England is unbeaten since 2009 and since then has won 26 and drawn eight (of course, what happens to England at major finals is another matter — too often qualification is followed by humiliation). Should England shut out Scotland, it would have gone 10 qualifiers without conceding a single goal. On paper at least, this is a mismatch.
Even the most fervent Scotland fan will admit that for a surprise result, even a draw, the home team must play out of its skin and England has the mother of all collective off-days.
Glimmers of hope for the Scots?
The Glasgow crowd will be passionate and some against the Auld Enemy, the country Scotland would rather beat more than any other. The home players will raise their game a notch or two and Scotland has lost just twice at home since September 2013 — to Germany and England, which has drawn four of its last six away World Cup qualifiers.
However, Scotland has not beaten England at home since 1985. Its only victory in that span was a 1-0 win at Wembley in 1999, which was not enough to overturn a 2-0 first-leg loss in a playoff for the 2000 European Championship. Scotland was defeated 3-0 at Wembley last November and defender Charlie Mulgrew spoke for the nation when he called the home team “massive underdogs.”
He said: “England is a great team, a top side and every one of its players is world class. It is going to be difficult for us and we will be massive underdogs, but we will be ready when the game comes.”
Southgate will remind his players they must show emotional control in the white hot atmosphere of a partisan Hampden Park.
“We have no illusions of what they think of us,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to it. I love going into those occasions where you feel the world’s against you. We’ll put our flags in the sand and in a sporting sense fight for our country. We’ll have to overcome a team which was buoyed by the 1-0 home win over Slovenia in March, a result that kept them alive in the group.”
England, which leads Group F by four points, scored all its three goals against Scotland at Wembley from crosses and Christophe Berra said: “The game at Wembley just came down to taking chances. They took their chances and we didn’t take ours. They were more clinical and that’s football for you. That’s why, no disrespect to our squad, their players are playing for teams like Chelsea and Liverpool, the top teams in England.
“That can be the difference. You make a mistake, that one little slight switch-off for a second, and these guys can punish you.”
The England striker who punished defenses more than any other in the Premier League last season was Tottenham’s Harry Kane, whose 25 goals won him the Golden Boot for the second successive year. However, Kane’s last strike for England was over a year ago and five goals in 17 internationals underlines the room for improvement at the highest level.
Kane said: “Five in 17 isn’t terrible, but it is something I want to improve on, hopefully this weekend. If I can score a hat trick, the ratio won’t look so bad. With club football you are in a rhythm all the time, playing week in, week out. For your country it’s not like that. You meet up now and again and this is something I have to get used to.”
With seven goals in his final two league games, Kane could hardly have ended the domestic season in better form.
“My confidence has probably never been higher,” he said.
Joe Hart will retain his position in goal and Southgate’s biggest dilemma is which Tottenham right-back to start — the more experienced Kyle Walker or the uncapped but highly rated Kieran Trippier. He’ll probably go for Walker, with Trippier winning his first cap against France in Tuesday’s friendly. Captain Gary Cahill and John Stones are set to play in central defense with Ryan Bertrand on the left.
Erik Dier is the holding midfielder alongside Adam Lallana, with Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford providing the support for Kane.
Teams covet Mbappe
The curtain comes down on the season in Paris on Tuesday against France and the main focus will be on Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old striker who is, understandably, on the wanted list of every top European club. Mbappe has been strongly linked with Arsenal and Arsene Wenger needs to bring a marquee signing to the Emirates this summer. Mbappe would be perfect.
He scored 26 goals in 28 for Monaco last season plus 11 assists. The French club has said it will do all it can to keep the best young player in the world, but another outstanding display against England would raise the transfer stakes.
Inevitably compared with Thierry Henry, Mbappe looks the real deal even after one season. His speed and ability to ride tackles as he attacks defenses make him a pleasure to watch and a nightmare to play against. A consummate team player, Mbappe is the next big thing — the only question is where he will be next season. Wenger came close to signing him last season, though Arsenal’s lack of Champions League football next season would be a consideration.
Scotland will present tribal warfare for England, though three days later Mbappe and Les Bleus will be a reminder of the more beautiful side of football.
Enjoy the summer.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.