Craig Levein column: ‘Everyone will be willing Scots to lose to Ukraine’

Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday, 1 June Time: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to live commentary on Sportsound, follow live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app, and watch highlights on Sportscene

As a nation, Scotland are pretty much well liked. Or at least we like to think so…

It’s a great place, and is probably high up in lots of people’s destinations to visit. But this is such a unique situation the country’s football team finds itself in.

The eyes of the world will be on this match, and almost everyone will be willing us to falter against Ukraine on Wednesday.

Let’s be clear, this group of Ukraine players will be as ready as they possibly can be given the traumatic circumstances of what is going on in their homeland.

They’ve been playing friendly matches, and nobody will be able to comprehend the raw emotion and intense national pride of those men when they pull on that yellow shirt and step out in front of that crowd.

There is no doubt in my mind they will get a wonderful reception. The Tartan Army have also been given lyrics to the Ukrainian national anthem, and that could be a truly special moment pre-match.

Steve Clarke’s humanitarian side will understand that. But that has to be parked. The focus has to be on overcoming a difficult opponent on a difficult night, to earn a final in Cardiff this Sunday.

They must try and put out of their minds what is happening in Ukraine as much as they can, and be as professional as possible. They have to shroud themselves from that noise and play the game, not the occasion.

It’s very difficult to put myself in Steve’s shoes. I have been through the normal activities involved with international football, but I’ve never been in a World Cup play-off to get through to another World Cup play-off – that’s even more intense.

I also haven’t been through the situation where you are trying to steer the team through the unknown to then face a nation like Ukraine. It’s such a unique position.

‘It’s impossible to say what Ukraine will bring’

Steve has created a harmony in the group that is essential if you want to be successful.

We know Ukraine are normally a tough side, but it’s impossible to say in that competitive environment what they will bring to the match. As an opponent, that is something that is extremely difficult to prepare for.

Looking at Scotland, I have seen such an improvement since last summer’s Euros. Steve has players who want to come along and play and that is one of the main reasons we now stand just two games away from our first World Cup since 1998.

For all the harmony in the group, the thing I believe will help the Scottish national team is the improvement of the individual players. You can go through the squad and so many of them have been one of, if not the best player in their respective sides.

Lyndon Dykes has been excellent at QPR, Andy Robertson has been immense en route to a Champion League final with Liverpool, John Souttar and Craig Gordon have been the best players at Hearts, Aaron Hickey has been sensational in Italy. Aston Villa’s John McGinn has also turned into a national icon.

Scotland over the years has always been about the group. But now we have so many key individuals who are in form. It raises expectations, including mine.

Football is a game of chance, though. It’s also a game of emotion. In an intensely moving night at Hampden, Scotland must seize theirs.

Craig Levein was speaking to BBC Scotland’s Scott Mullen

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