Why Scotland's game against Gibraltar will only make their life harder

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Scotland face Gibraltar on Monday as they prepare for Euro 2024 - but what, precisely, is the point?

There are few real rights and wrongs when it comes to preparing for a major international tournament. Those last couple of friendlies can represent a chance to try out new ideas and unfamiliar players, or just provide a final opportunity to nail down the shape and starting line-up. But whatever Steve Clarke’s priorities are as Scotland gear up for their two Euro 2024 warm-up matches next week, one question that has to be asked is – why the hell are they playing Gibraltar?

The travelling Tartan Army will pile into the Estádio Algarve in Portugal on Monday evening to watch their team line up against one of Europe’s - and indeed the world’s - weakest teams, and may well wonder exactly how the game will help Scotland prepare to take on host nation Germany in the tournament’s opening fixture on 14 June. Gibraltar are currently ranked 203rd in the world by FIFA, and you’ll be lucky to escape a repetitive strain injury if you scroll down to find them on FIFA’s website below the likes of the Cayman Islands, Timor-Leste and Bhutan. In short, they can hardly be expected to put up fierce resistance.

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“Everybody thinks we'll go to Gibraltar and it's going to be easy,” assistant manager John Carver told the media ahead of the game. “I know that they had some difficult results against Holland and France but so did we. So it's not like it's an easy game for us.”

It really should be. Since back-to-back wins against Liechtenstein and Andorra in November 2022, Gibraltar have lost all 10 games that they’ve played, conceding 46 and scoring zero. That run included a 14-0 hiding at the hands of France and a 6-0 defeat at home to the Netherlands. Even at their lowest ebb, Scotland have never lost by more than seven goals in their history, which makes Carver’s comparison seem a little dubious.

It may be that the Scottish FA hope that an easy win will boost morale. Scotland started qualification for the tournament well enough to make it through, but are now winless in seven and lost both spring friendlies to the Netherlands and Northern Ireland. Throw in a serious injury to potential star player Lewis Ferguson – who will miss the tournament and the next six months or so – and things look rather bleak, especially with a tough group which also features Switzerland and Hungary.

“We'll go there with the right frame of mind and won't take anything for granted. But we need to get some results,” added Carver, accurately enough. “In the past, our run into the tournament, the previous Euros, was good last time around, so we need to get some victories, for sure.”

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Scotland’s management know their players better than a journalist commenting from outside the camp, of course, so perhaps they’re right to think that cruising to a cosy win over a minnow would help to improve the vibes a little. Certainly a few goals for the strikers wouldn’t go amiss. But it looks a lot like a hiding to nothing – win easily, and nobody particularly cares. Struggle, or worse still somehow fail to win at all, and the knives will come out in earnest.

If you want an example of the need to ensure that pre-tournament friendlies actually prepare a team for the level of competition that they will face in the main event, you only need to look at the way England warmed up for the 2006 World Cup, ironically also hosted in Germany – with Trinidad & Tobago among the Three Lions’ group stage opponents, The FA organised a friendly against Jamaica, apparently under the illogical and frankly dodgy assumption that another Caribbean team would provide a useful measuring stick for the team they would face shortly thereafter.

England swept a disorganised and chaotic Jamaican team aside at Old Trafford, winning 6-0 and cruising through a match against abysmal opposition. Less than two weeks later, England struggled to impose themselves on a disciplined, well-drilled and rigid Trinidadian side who came close to springing a shock – in the end, late goals from Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard saw Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side through, but it was a thoroughly unconvincing performance, and a game which demonstrated why a throw-away game against weak opposition could be unhelpful, if not actively harmful.

Scotland do, at least, pit themselves against more respectable opposition a few days after the Gibraltar game when they face Finland, who were beaten comfortably by Wales in the semi-finals of the qualifying play-offs but who acquitted themselves well in their initial attempt to make it to Germany.

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How they perform in that game may give us some indication of their chances of making the knock-out rounds at the European Championships for the first time – but they will not be playing a team who can give them a game that will simulate the experience of playing Germany in Munich in a fortnight’s time. The gulf between Gibraltar and the Germans could hardly be larger, and one wonders how the Scottish side can possibly be better prepared for one as a result of playing the other. Most likely, they won’t.

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