Return of Leigh Griffiths, Steven Naismith and John Souttar gives Clarke a boost
But, with injuries limiting certain options, the Scotland manager says it is a boost to have players such as Leigh Griffiths, Steven Naismith and John Souttar back in domestic action and in contention for a place in the squad for the upcoming play-offs, against Israel and then, hopefully, either Norway or Serbia, while others, he says, have regained form at the right time to help fill any void left by crocked cohorts.
John McGinn has been the most prolific player in the Scotland ranks in recent matches, with seven goals in the last six outings, but the Aston Villa midfielder is currently sidelined with a broken ankle and facing a race against time to prove his fitness ahead of the 26 March semi-final at Hampden.
Which is why the return to the fold of two of the nation’s top strikers, Griffiths and Naismith is welcomed by Clarke.
With two in his last two games, Griffiths is an obvious source of goals, while Naismith has delivered when selected by Clarke in the past. Keeping them both fit and firing on all cylinders would be a massive advantage to the national set-up.
“The thing I’ve learned about this job is never to look too far ahead. You go game to game and week to week. But it was nice to see Steven back on the pitch for Hearts and Leigh Griffiths scoring a goal for Celtic plus John Souttar back on the pitch.
“I haven’t ruled anybody out or in and nobody has ruled themselves out and there’s still a number of weeks to go before the squad gets together and hopefully I’ve got a full squad to choose from.”
“But, I think everybody who’s got a track record, and who plays well over the coming weeks… the door isn’t closed on anybody. If someone can hit a bit of form and make it difficult for me to leave them out, that’s what they should do.
“I don’t have any plans to go out of my way to speak with anybody in particular over the coming weeks.
“I don’t want to sound flippant… but when players are not playing for their clubs, you tend not to think about them. You think about the ones that are playing and you can select. So when Leigh wasn’t playing for Celtic. He wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. But if he is in the Celtic team and scores goals he’ll come to the front of my mind.”
While it would be a blow if McGinn can’t recover in time, the return to form of players such as Kenny McLean and Stuart Armstrong is the counterbalance, according to Clarke. pictured right.
“It’s swings and roundabouts,” he added. “You get fluctuations in form. Stuart wasn’t in the Southampton team for a number of weeks there but got back in on the back of their 9-0 defeat. He’s stayed in the team since and scored a great goal on Tuesday night. I watched him on Saturday and he played very well in an attacking midfield position. That’s the nature of the game. Maybe in three weeks’ time it will have turned on its head again.
“There’s John Fleck at Sheffield United doing very well too. He scored a good goal at the Emirates against Arsenal. He’s got a few goals this year. So, we’ve got a number of good midfield players which is pleasing. Although we’re speaking about players who haven’t been selected, in the last game I felt the combination of Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack was good. Let’s not forget those two.”
While an element of jeopardy will remain, with domestic games scheduled to go ahead only days before the do-or-die international head to heads, Clarke says he has a very good idea who will shoulder the nation’s play-off hopes.
“I wouldn’t say I know my 11, but I think with the exception of one or two positions I’m pretty sure of nine out of the 11,” he said. “There are one or two that are close to call and one or two injuries that I’m waiting on but I’m pretty sure. Even in the squad, if I name a squad of 23 for example I would say I probably have 20 of them nailed down already.
“I think to be as clear in my mind as I am about the team selection, or the squad selection, is probably a little bit of progress.”