As Scotland take to the pitch in the Amsterdam Arena tomorrow night, the mood will be one of excitement, anticipation and perhaps a little dread. Indeed, not since the days of Berti Vogts has a Scotland match been met with such rampant pessimism as the upcoming Group Nine encounter and, though this will no doubt give way, by virtue of a few pints, to a brash kilt-flaunting confidence by the time kick off arrives, it is easy to understand why some of the Tartan Army have reservations about the nation’s chances.
After a stuttering start to the campaign which leaves the Scots on four points from their first three games, the trip to face a Holland side sporting a 100% record has been rocked by a series of injuries which have left an already threadbare squad in tatters. Paul Hartley, Stephen McManus, Alan Hutton, David Weir, James McFadden and Barry Ferguson are all either doubts or certainties to miss the game and this is merely the tip of the iceberg. That all six took part in our one ray of hope—the 1-0 victory over France at the Parc des Princes in September 2007—just adds weight to the uneasy rumblings emanating from all corners of the country. The memory, too, of the 6-0 drubbing which befell us on our last visit to face the Dutch in 2003, looms large in the Scottish psyche and ensures that anything better than a point is deemed a result as outlandish as Darren Mackie winning the next Golden Shoe.
Yet, the Scottish star has not fallen as far as some would have us believe. The loss to Macedonia, disappointing though it may be, was firmly in keeping with losses to Georgia and Belarus in other, more positive, campaigns. These are the results for which the expression “we never do things the easy way” was invented and the 2-1 win in Iceland, which followed, has proven a better result than originally anticipated with the island nation now sitting, surprisingly, in joint-second place in the group. It is worth reiterating that second place, barring a piece of extreme misfortune, will be enough to secure the play-off place which was, realistically, our goal all along and, though a sizeable percentage of the country appeared to throw in the towel after the 0-0 draw with Norway at Hampden in October, Scotland’s start has arguably been better than each of our three closest challengers.
Some solace may also be found in the history of our opponents. The story of Dutch football has been littered with whirlwind starts, featuring truly scintillating football, which have ran out of steam and met decidedly anticlimactic conclusions. Such was the case in Euro 2008, where the same Holland side that appeared invincible in the group stages were comprehensively outplayed by Guus Hiddink’s Russia and deservedly dumped out of the competition at the quarter-final stage. A nation which has veered so often from greatness to incompetence must, at some stage, suffer the dip in form needed for Scotland’s makeshift side to accomplish a positive result. That the Dutch made hard-work of stuffy and well organised defensive performances by Romania, Albania and even Luxembourg in the last campaign, provides some hope that a heroic backs to the wall effort may prove enough to take home an invaluable point or, perhaps, something more.
So whilst, in the absence of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Klaas Jan Huntelaar, we may have to make do with Kenny Miller, Graham Alexander and Gary Teale, it is worth remembering the many occasions where a seemingly unbeatable Dutch side has been humbled by an un-fancied team willing to go that extra mile for the cause. Here’s hoping history repeats itself on Saturday night.