For Scotland the appointment of Gordon Strachan represents something of a fresh start. Unfortunately for them the group standings haven’t been reset with Craig Levein’s exit, as the Scots still find themselves slumped at the foot of Group A.
Wales are in a similar position, only a single point ahead of Scotland, and when the two sides met last year not much could separate them. Well, Gareth Bale could. Bale has netted 11 times in his last 11 appearances for club and country and the Spurs winger proved to be the difference in Cardiff last October, bagging a brace.
Can Scotland contain Bale this time round and fatten up their increasingly slim chances of a Brazilian summer next year?
When news filtered through that Bale hadn’t travelled with the Wales team to Glasgow the reaction was predictably frenzied. As it turned out the Tottenham winger had made the journey north and Scottish panic returned while Wales’ eased - although Bale missed training on Wednesday as he continues to struggle with an ankle injury. Perhaps another clash with Charlie Adam isn’t the best way for Bale to recover from such a set-back.
James Morrison, one of Scotland’s most consistent performers, was forced to pull out Strachan’s first competitive squad due to injury. Barry Bannan was called up as a replacement, but Strachan is short of options in midfield, with James Forrest, Ross McCormack and Danny Fox also pulling out.
Chris Coleman is also suffering his own midfield problems, with David Vaughan and Joe Allen ruled out. Both were instrumental in Wales’ win in October.
A rather unconvincing 1-0 friendly win over Estonia gives Strachan a 100% record as Scotland manager to date but the Tartan Army are yet to see their team register a win in Group A. In fact, they’ve yet to see Scotland win in Glasgow since a shaky 1-0 victory over Lithuania back in September 2011. Hampden is no longer the formidable fortress it once was.
A 2-1 win over Austria last month demonstrated Coleman’s side are starting to find their identity, although the crushing 6-1 defeat to Serbia (just three competitive games ago) suggests Wales’ self-destructive streak might not have been left behind just yet.
When these two sides met in Cardiff, Scotland appeared to have control of the tie. A Morrison goal had given the Levein’s side a first half lead, with Steven Fletcher seeing a goal wrongly chalked off for offside as the Scots exerted their dominance. Then Bale happened, with the damage caused extending beyond the pitch; Levein was sacked less than a month later.
Given Bale’s scintillating goalscoring form of late, it seems a question of when, rather than if, the Spurs winger nets at Hampden on Friday. He is available at 3.10 to score against Scotland.
Strachan is likely to play Sunderland striker Fletcher (5.25 first goalscorer) as the focal point of attack, supported by midfielders breaking forward to help him out. However, should things be going awry for the Scots, Strachan is likely to turn to Jordan Rhodes, who can be found at 5.75 to score the last goal.
Both sides are scrambling to drag themselves back into qualification contention, so defeat at Hampden would be devastating to aspirations of reaching the World Cup. However, I can see both teams’ chances being dealt a fatal blow, with a draw at 3.40 looking a solid bet. Although if Bale’s form continues Wales/draw HT/FT seems to represent value at 11.00.
Bale turned the last meeting against Scotland on its head, firing a long range stunner past Allan McGregor to revive Wales’ ailing qualification campaign. He’s available at 9.00 to score from outside the penalty area once again.
Score prediction: Scotland 1-1 Wales (6.75)