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World Cup 2022: Steve Clarke’s most important Scotland squad selection yet?

Could Steve Clarke have Kieran Tierney’s inclusion in his sights despite the defender’s injury?

Three years and three days since his appointment, Steve Clarke on Monday names the most important squad of his reign as Scotland head coach knowing he is potentially two games away from going down in history as the man to end the nation’s 24-year absence from World Cup finals.

Win a long-delayed, and likely emotionally charged, play-off semi-final at home to war-affected Ukraine and a winner-take-all battle of Britain final in Wales awaits.

Whether they emerge crestfallen or heads held high, Clarke and his boys also face playing three opening games in the Nations League by the middle of June – home and away against Armenia with a trip to Republic of Ireland in between.

What are the key questions he will have been mulling overnight?

Hope for Tierney and Patterson?

Given continuity is Clarke’s watchword and his side are coming off a heartening run of eight games without defeat, you can expect few, if any, leftfield picks from the 58-year-old.

However, given the unusual circumstance of so many international games without interruption, it would be no surprise if Clarke selects a squad substantially larger than the normal 25.

Considering the matches come after the end of most domestic seasons, it makes sense to assemble as many back-ups as practically possible rather than have to recall players later from some far-off sunshine holiday beach.

With a nine-day wait for their big day at Hampden, it also gives more than normal recovery time for those players nursing injuries at the end of long, hard club seasons.

Liverpool's Andy Robertson (right) scores against Wolves
Andy Robertson (right) scored against Wolves ahead of playing in the Champions League final

Most notably, Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney and Everton’s Nathan Patterson, both of whom have not played since Scotland’s 2-2 draw with Austria in March and have undergone surgery, could join up with the squad in the hope of recovering in time to play some part in the five games.

The question mark about that duo’s availability means the likes of Celtic right-back Anthony Ralston, Heart of Midlothian centre-half Craig Halkett, himself just back from injury, and Bologna left-back Aaron Hickey will expect to retain their places after recent first call-ups.

Meanwhile, Liam Cooper, fresh from helping Leeds United escape relegation on the English top flight’s final day, and Hearts’ John Souttar are in line to return after missing out through injury from Clarke’s last squad.

Fellow centre-half Scott McKenna’s involvement in the Championship play-off final for Nottingham Forest against Huddersfield Town could mean his return to the squad makes him a less likely starter against Ukraine considering it comes just three days after his big day at Wembley.

Clarke will certainly want extra cover at left-back given captain Andy Robertson, whose goal in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers was not enough to deny Manchester City the Premier League title, plays for Liverpool in the Champions League final against Real Madrid just four days before Ukraine’s 1 June visit to Hampden.

Gilmour expected to recover?

Norwich City have not only finished a distant bottom of the Premier League but provide Scotland’s two main midfield concerns.

Kenny McLean has not played since April, while Billy Gilmour missed out on his final game on loan from Chelsea against Tottenham Hotspur after rolling his ankle against Wolves, but it is not expected to prevent the latter continuing his pivotal role in Clarke’s plans.

Wright time for Rangers winger?

Rangers' Scott Wright and Ryan Jack celebrate
Could Scott Wright join Rangers team-mate Ryan Jack in the squad after their cup-final winning goals

Given Stoke City’s Jacob Brown, Bournemouth’s Ryan Christie and Queen’s Park Rangers’ Lyndon Dykes have already attended a mini Scotland training camp designed to keep them ticking over after the end of the Championship season, those three appear to be certainties among Clarke’s forward options.

After his first call up last time, Ross Stewart is also likely to retain his place after his scoring role as Sunderland won promotion after Saturday’s League One play-off win over Wycombe Wanderers.

Could Scott Wright be a late contender? There is some clamour for the 24-year-old winger to be given a first call-up after the 24-year-old emerged from the fringes at Ibrox to perform admirably in Rangers’ Europa League campaign before scoring in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final win over Hearts.

There’s less noise this time around Vancouver Whitecaps’ Ryan Gauld and Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell with their sides propping up the Major Soccer League’s Western Conference. Indeed, they are also due to be in opposition just three days before Scotland face Ukraine.

Scotland wait for Clark?

With veteran David Marshall, who is poised to join Hibernian, having not played for QPR since March through injury, Hearts’ Craig Gordon, Motherwell’s Liam Kelly and St Johnstone’s Zander Clark appear safely in possession of the goalkeeping gloves.

Clarke’s only concern is probably whether the latter comes through unscathed against Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Monday’s Scottish Premiership play-off final, with Ibrox back-up John McLaughlin an able man to have waiting in the wings after his role in Rangers’ cup run.

It would appear that his Premier League players survived a dramatic final day without serious injury, but given a World Cup place is at stake, you would imagine that even those nursing knocks will gladly delay any holiday plans to join Clarke’s party on the cusp of immortality.

‘He’s going to have to use his squad’

Former Scotland manager Craig Levein

If it’s normally a 25-man squad, you would probably take 32, maybe 34.

Two things – you might need those extra players for the Nations League matches and what are the players going to be doing during this time frame?

You’d like to have them with you and make sure they’re training, so that they’re there if you did need any of them, rather than wait two weeks or whenever it is and then trying to call them up.

I don’t think there will be any of the players able to play all five matches, so he’s going to have to use his squad and what you want to be doing is making sure the players you’re using are still ticking over.

The emergence of a lot of good players has helped enormously, but Steve’s still pulled it all together and created an environment where people want to come along.

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