You would need a heart of stone not to feel for Billy Gilmour. He was preparing for the biggest game of his immensely promising young career. He had the whole of Scotland behind him. And then this happened.
It’s just horrible luck. I hope he is OK after news of his positive Covid test. While his health is clearly the most important thing, there is no doubt his absence will make Scotland’s task against Croatia more difficult. That much is obvious after how Gilmour played at Wembley last Friday night.
Even so, I still think Steve Clarke’s team can overcome such an unexpected blow and take the great stride forward that victory would bring. I see a number of areas within the Croatian set-up that Scotland can exploit. To do so, many individuals will need to bring the performance levels witnessed against England.
There is no doubt Billy Gilmour’s absence will make Scotland’s task against Croatia harder
How to handle loss of Gilmour is now obviously the biggest question confronting Steve Clarke
How to handle the loss of Gilmour is now obviously the biggest question confronting Clarke.
It’s going to be very interesting. Stuart Armstrong was the man who replaced Gilmour for the last 14 minutes at Wembley, so does he take over from the start with the rest of the team remaining the same? That has to be a big option.
John Fleck or David Turnbull could come in, but they haven’t been used yet. Moving John McGinn deeper or bringing Scott McTominay out of the back three would cause disruption in other areas.
Clarke might want to keep things as close to the team that played England as possible. But he made big calls before that game and they paid off. He has to be trusted.
I wasn’t sure about starting Gilmour at Wembley. I was concerned it might put too much pressure on his shoulders. But I was wrong.
The way he played was just outstanding. His performance was so full of composure and maturity that you almost had to question whether he had really just turned 20.
Scotland are the only team in the Euros yet to score but can still qualify for the last 16 tonight
He did a simple thing that the best players do. He played to his strengths and imposed them on the game. He dictated the pace when in possession and showed incredible awareness in the way he used the ball.
Those attributes would have been so important tonight. Without them, Scotland might have to change their approach just a little.
Composure and ball retention are still absolutely vital, of course. But, in this match, so are pace, power and set-piece prowess.
Croatia don’t want a high-tempo game. We all know their strength is in midfield. If you are too far away from Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic or Mateo Kovacic, they will outplay you.
But they are still so dependent on Modric at the age of the 35. His class is not in dispute, but is his decision-making quite as quick and hungry as before? I’m not sure. Scotland have to make sure they disrupt his flow. If Modric operates deeper, then someone like McGinn has the energy to that.
Overall, this Croatia side is not one that excels in its work without the ball. England exposed that by going straight at them in the opening round of matches. They shut down space and over-powered them. Croatia barely created a decent chance at Wembley.
They were a wee bit better against the Czechs, especially in the second half, but it required a moment of brilliance from Ivan Perisic to get a draw. He is still a threat, of course, but there is not the same level of quality around him that we saw when they reached the 2018 World Cup final.
Without Mario Mandzukic or Ivan Rakitic, they are not as good at creating or taking chances. They have Bruno Petkovic, who is big and strong, but we haven’t really seen much of the Dinamo Zagreb striker so far.
Croatia are still so dependent on Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric at the age of the 35
Similar problems exist at the back, too. I see a particular issue about their defending of set-pieces and I think that’s something Clarke could well take into consideration.
Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida at centre-back are not as quick as they once were. I honestly see routes for Scotland to create a lot more chances. I don’t think Croatia are as strong defensively as either England or the Czech Republic.
Lyndon Dykes, more than ever, could be an important player. I think he can put more pressure on Lovren and Vida than was possible against the centre-backs in either of the previous two games. He could also help create space for Che Adams to use his intelligence.
It feels a little strange to be positive about Scotland as an attacking force when they are the only team in the Euros yet to score. But I do think this can be the game when it changes. Sometimes it’s easier going into a match knowing you have to win. Mentally, the picture is clearer.
It’s the same for Croatia, of course. Despite Scotland being at home, however, I feel the balance of pressure weighs more heavily on Zlatko Dalic’s team.
I have a sneaky feeling this side, even without Gilmour, will break new ground and reach last 16
What are the Covid-19 rules during Euro 2020? How Gilmour must isolate along with any others who had close contact
All Euro 2020 teams are living in a bubble and avoiding all contact with the public for the duration of their involvement.
Players are having regular PCR tests and their temperatures are taken when they arrive at stadiums.
Any player, coach or official who returns a positive Covid-19 result is immediately removed from the group and quarantined in order to contain any potential outbreak. Team-mates or staff who have had close contact with the infected players must do the same.
Opposition players are not deemed close contacts unless they spend an extended period of time with the positive player. Teams must fulfil their Euro fixtures as long as they have a minimum of 13 players available.
I’m sure they thought they would be in second place by now, if not winning the group. They haven’t met expectations and their performances have been heavily criticised back home.
There is also history to overcome. Croatia will know they haven’t beaten Scotland in five games.
You can try and write that off as being something confined to the past, but I think there’s more to it. Sometimes there are teams you just don’t want to play against. For Croatia, I believe Scotland very much fall into that category.
When I look at the current Croatian players, it seems like a group that just won’t relish facing a mixture of physical strength, aggression and talent at Hampden.
They have also won only two of their last 11 games — against Malta and Cyprus – and that will create doubt in their minds. If Scotland could score the first goal — and I know that’s a big if — their reaction would be fascinating.
It goes without saying that it would be fantastic for the whole of Scottish football to win this one and make the next round. It would really put the spotlight on these players. They would have shown the world that, after 23 years away from major tournaments, the country now has a very good generation to call upon.
But if things don’t go their way against Croatia, Euro 2020 is not the end of things for Scotland. It would just be the start.
With Gilmour, McGinn, Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay and many others all at a good age, the next four-year cycle can be really positive. I believe that.
That’s for the future. Right now, I have a sneaky feeling this side — even without Gilmour — will break new ground and get to the last 16.
Scotland players will need to bring the performance levels witnessed against England