Less than four months after battling it out in the World Cup playoffs, Scotland and Ukraine reconvene in the UEFA Nations League on Wednesday.
They both ultimately missed out on a place at Qatar 2022, but occupy the top two spots in League B Group 1 with a game in hand on the other two nations.
Having fallen at the penultimate hurdle of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1998 – being beaten 3-1 by Ukraine at Hampden Park amid emotional scenes – Scotland started their Nations League campaign in the summer with six points from their first three fixtures.
After beating Armenia home and away, Steve Clarke’s side sit second in League B Group 1, one point behind their Ukrainian counterparts and two ahead of the Republic of Ireland, despite losing their second game 3-0 in Dublin.
Scotland now play Ukraine twice either side of the return match against Ireland, so the events of the coming week will shape their Nations League destiny; deciding whether they can qualify for the competition’s top tier for the first time.
Since ending 2021 with six wins in succession, the Tartan Army have won only two of their subsequent six outings – both against minnows Armenia – but there have been green shoots of recovery for a success-starved nation in recent times.
With both Glasgow giants back in the big time, as they participate in this year’s Champions League group stage, and the national squad having taken part at Euro 2020, Clarke’s men will be keen to build momentum again and get the autumn action off to a winning start.
Standing in Scotland’s way on Wednesday – and then next Tuesday, in their temporary home of Krakow – will be a Ukraine squad that has endured much adversity over the past few months, and also narrowly missed out on a place in Qatar by losing to Wales in the playoff final.
No competitive football has been played in the war-torn nation since December, when the Ukrayinska Premier Liha paused for its midwinter break, as fixtures were due to resume in late February until the Russian invasion occurred.
Despite the dangers, a new league season started in Kyiv last month, with all league games being played in the capital and further west, and Ukraine’s top clubs are back in European competition too – albeit with new-look squads; shorn of foreign stars.
Since their heartbreaking defeat at Cardiff City Stadium, Oleksandr Petrakov’s team have begun their Nations League campaign unbeaten, and after seeing off Ireland and Armenia in their opening two games, they most recently squared off against Stephen Kenny’s side in Lodz.
Letting their 100% record slip, Ukraine were held to a 1-1 draw after Artem Dovbyk equalised a Nathan Collins opener, but they still sit top of League B Group 1 with seven points.
Previously relegated from League A amid controversial circumstances – their decisive fixture with Switzerland was called off due to a COVID-19 outbreak and UEFA then forced them to forfeit the points – Ukraine will not be lacking in motivation this week, for any number of reasons.
While Scotland captain Andy Robertson will be missing through injury for each of their three games this month, the timely return of Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney at least compensates, and the former Celtic full-back should start.
Meanwhile, Jacob Brown, Grant Hanley and Jon McLaughlin have all withdrawn from the squad, with Rangers goalkeeper Robby McCrorie called up as the latter’s replacement.
Hibernian centre-back Ryan Porteous has received his first call-up, as both John Souttar and Liam Cooper are sidelined, while midfield pair Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean are back in contention following long-term injuries. Despite a lack of playing time this term, Billy Gilmour, Jack Hendry and Anthony Ralston could all feature too.
While Robertson sits out for Scotland, a similarly influential left-footer will be absent for Ukraine, as Arsenal’s Oleksandr Zinchenko recently sustained a calf injury in training and may not return to action until next month.
Dynamo Kyiv’s Mykola Shaparenko suffered an ACL rupture in his club’s Europa League clash with Fenerbahce earlier this month, so joins Zinchenko on the sidelines.
Shakhtar Donetsk starlet Mykhaylo Mudryk and captain Andriy Yarmolenko are both among a familiar-looking squad, though, and both should start in support of either Roman Yaremchuk and Artem Dovbyk up front.
Scotland possible starting lineup:
Gordon; Hendry, McKenna, Tierney; Patterson, McGinn, McGregor, Hickey; Fraser, Adams, Christie
Ukraine possible starting lineup:
Lunin; Karavayev, Zabarnyi, Matviyenko, Mykolenko; Kovalenko, Sydorchuk, Malinovskyi; Yarmolenko, Yaremchuk, Mudryk