Weblog: The football punter
Flying Ryan Fraser can provide Scotland's spark
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It’s all to play for in Nations League C Group 1, where a makeshift Scotland side look unconvincing favourites against Albania in Shkoder.
The Scots are ranked 20 places higher than Christian Panucci’s hosts in Fifa’s world rankings – but it won’t be anything close to a full-strength Tartan Army stepping out at the Loro Borici Stadium.
Alex McLeish has had to rule out a glut of his better players for this crunch double-header against Albania and Israel.
And since Scotland have won just two of their last ten internationals, losing seven of their last nine, they aren’t easy to fancy no matter what the rankings might tell us.
Nor, it has to be said, do Albania make more appeal. They have scored only two goals in seven matches in 2018 and are showing scant signs of progress under Panucci.
This has all the makings of a shocker and the prices reflect that. The draw is 21-10 at best, no goalscorer heads the first-scorer betting and under 2.5 is an 8-15 chance.
The group has produced eight goals in four matches and not a single match to remember and an undistinguished end to this brief campaign looks inevitable.
A search for quality on a pitch generally devoid of class acts does reveal one or two. Taulant Xhaka, the Basel mainstay and older brother of Arsenal’s Granit, scored his country’s only goal of the campaign, the winner against Israel in September.
That preceded a 2-0 loss at Hampden Park, where they weren’t grossly inferior, and another 2-0 reverse in Israel, where they were unlucky to lose. Xhaka is the heartbeat of the team.
Only one player in either squad has bagged more than four international goals – that’s nine-goal Steven Fletcher who, presumably, McLeish will deploy in attack. Beggars can’t be choosers.
McLeish lacks a natural right-back which means Callum Paterson, who has played there before, may well have to slot in, leaving Sheffield Wednesday veteran Fletcher as the obvious candidate for the number nine role.
Scotland do at least have class down the flanks in the shape of Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson and wingers James Forrest and Ryan Fraser.
If there’s a goal to be had then Fraser, at 12-1, represents a decent enough price to get the first one.
The Bournemouth flyer is enjoying a stellar start to his season with the Cherries, for whom he has scored four times and produced a number of assists. He looks a threat every time he runs at defenders.
Albania need to be positive if they are to have any hope of avoiding finishing last and that should in turn enable the Scots, and players such as Fraser, to glean opportunities on the counter.
R Fraser first scorer