AFTER what surely will be a defeat to Belgium on Monday night, Scotland face four remaining games of their European Championship group. It is reality rather than pessimism which tells those of us who want our national team to do well that we are playing for third place.

Then it’s the complicated play-off which if it were to take place tomorrow, few supporters would predict their team making it to the first finals since 1998. The plan for Steve Clarke is to use these four games and perhaps a friendly – plus the training sessions – to get a starting eleven sorted in his mind, or at least as much as any international manager can.

There is cause for optimism. Honest. The players have bought into what Clarke and his staff want them to do. Training is enjoyable. They have warmed to his direct approach. Everyone knows their job. Scotland have looked better, more organised and balanced.

The problem, and it’s been a long-term one, is that some of the players available right now aren’t good enough.

Clarke will hope that come May, Kieran Tierney has taken the Premier League by storm, that his core of Celtic players remain fit and in form, Scott McKenna isn’t injured, Leigh Griffiths has fully sorted himself out and some of the young would-be stars, the uber-talented Billy Gilmour at Chelsea may well be in the squad before then, are among those he can choose from.

But as things stand, Scotland are a long way from qualification. No team that loses 3-0 in Kazakhstan can expect to finish second in a group with Russia and Belgium.

Clarke wants to finish the group as strongly as they can and hope, starting in Glasgow tomorrow evening, that things start to go for him.

Win a few games, score some goals, and the players would feel confident about taking on whoever – probably Bulgaria – and then making it to the play-off final on a neutral ground - and, yes, this is more complicated than it should be.

Clarke conceded that work needed to be done to get the best out of the good players, and he has many at his disposal.

For example, speaking about the midfield, an area where his team are on paper strong, the manager said: “We need to find a formula that gets us the best players on the pitch and the best way of playing.

“Rather than looking at individuals, I have to look at the whole team performance rather than individuals. It is dangerous in a team game to just pick out one or two that maybe the media or the fans think weren’t at their best. I have to look at the bigger picture and that’s what I will do.

"They are all good footballers but we need to find someone in there with a bit more defensive nous. When Kenny McLean went on, it helped and suited the midfield quite well and that is something I will have to think about in the future.”

What he needs is Scott Brown of five years ago.

What annoyed Clarke more than anything about the Russia game was how his players retreated into their own half when leading and then once the equaliser came, for too long showed little know-how in terms of getting at a Russian defence which was several levels below that of their attacking team-mates.

Clarke said: “It was a strange one because we didn’t talk about dropping deep. We spoke about trying to keep the big striker outside the danger area because when it gets played into him he is very clever at knocking it down and obviously Golovin in and around your 18 yard box is very, very dangerous.

“If he is 30-40 yards away from goal, he is not so dangerous. That was something we spoke about, spoke about it again at half time, but they penned us in. We couldn’t get out. We couldn’t retain the ball. Our ball retention wasn’t good enough and we have to work better to keep the ball even when the opposition are pressing us.”

When pressed about self-belief and the lack of it, Clarke insisted: “I didn’t notice it all week in training. I thought we were in good shape for it. Lack of belief? I’m not so sure it was a lack of belief

“Maybe because we scored the goal so early, maybe the mindset was that we have to be hard to beat, we have to try to hold onto 1-0. I don’t know why that would be the case because it wasn’t a game where we had spoken about being defensive. We wanted to be on the front foot, we wanted to have a go at Russia, we wanted to try to win.

“Again, all these things take a bit of time to compute. I will go and watch the game again. I have already watched it once although I was a little bit tired so I will watch it again and see if we can put your finger on something. But I would say that retention was a big thing.”

One positive was Ryan Christie who brought more in his half hour appearance off the bench than some did who started and finished on Friday night.

Clarke said: “I am a fan of Ryan. But after the Old Firm game, he didn’t train until Wednesday and he only had two training sessions going into Friday’s game. I just thought it was better to try to introduce Ryan into the game and I hoped it would be to help us win the game.”

Christie will start on Monday, as will McLean as Clarke will look to pull off a football miracle. It’s not all doom and gloom but it still feels far from bright.