SCOTLAND’S failure to reach the last five World Cup finals has owed as much to the quality of the countries they have faced in qualification as the ability of their players or the competence of their manager.

There have been some decent campaigns and a couple of agonising near misses, but Belgium, Croatia, England, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands have all proved just too good for the national team during the past 21 years.

So the presence of some of the biggest names in global football alongside them in the Qatar 2022 play-offs is reason, after the euphoria of the Group F triumph against Denmark at Hampden on Monday night, to remain cautious.

Scotland may well have secured a seeding thanks to their remarkable 2-0 victory over the Euro 2020 semi-finalists and runaway section winners in front of a crowd of 49,527 and might now be guaranteed home advantage in their semi-final in March.

However, they could still have to beat Italy, Portugal or Russia, to name just three, away in the final to reach the tournament proper. If, that is, they get that far. There can be no let up if a disappointing run is to finally be brought to an end.

None of the other 11 teams who will go into the draw in Nyon in Switzerland on Friday week, though, will exactly relish being pitted against Steve Clarke’s side in the second round of UEFA qualifying.

“Scotland is there too,” said Clarke yesterday. “If anybody watched the Denmark game they will be thinking it will be a tough game. We will see what the draw brings and then we will deal with it in March. For the moment, let’s just enjoy it. It has been an intense campaign.”

Andy Robertson and his team mates have made steady progress under the former West Brom, Reading and Kilmarnock manager since he was appointed two-and-a-half years ago and have now reached a stage where they are more than a match for any rival.

They struggled to compete with the Czech Republic and Croatia in Euro 2020 back in June and failed to get out of their group and into the knockout rounds. But Clarke was adamant at the time that his charges would benefit from their involvement. He has been proved right.

“We have come a long way in a short space of time,” said Clarke. “It was nice to take part in my first tournament. I don’t know if anybody remembers that when we went to the tournament I said we would come out of it as a better team and squad.  We have improved as a team. We were criticised, but we learned.

“We wanted to finish the campaign on a high on Monday and I think you saw the way we approached the game we were very positive. The Danes also made it an open game. We risked a lot and on the night we were the better team.”

Scotland’s chances of reaching Qatar 2022 were increased on Monday evening when five of the players who were one booking away from picking up suspensions – Che Adams, Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, Stephen O’Donnell and Andy Robertson – avoided having their names taken.

“I spoke to one or two individually, but not as a group because we wanted to win the game,” he said. “It was similar to going to Moldova. You don’t talk about the yellows, you talk about winning the game.”

But if they had picked up one match bans the national team could undoubtedly have coped. Clarke was missing five men who would have been automatic starters for him against Denmark in Lyndon Dykes, Grant Hanley, Jack Hendry, Scott McTominay and Nathan Patterson. But his team performed brilliantly. He has strength in depth as well as talent.

“It is credit to the players,” he said. “Stephen O’Donnell played again and he always gets unfair criticism from certain quarters. Why? When he pulls on that Scotland jersey Stephen plays well.

“John Souttar was the story of the night. I was so happy and I gave him a big hug when he came off.  I could have cried because of two years fighting back from the sort of injury and getting back into the squad he was made up. 

“To get the chance and to play like that? I was pleased for him. I’m not just talking about the goal either because that was just the icing on the cake.”

That said, Clarke will be hoping that Adams, who performed heroically in the lone striker role in the new 3-4-2-1 formation and sealed the victory with a well-taken strike four minutes from the end of regulation time, avoids injury in the coming months.

“He is not bad, Che McAdams,” he said. “He is a good player, I have always said that.  He is a striker and like most strikers he needs confidence. He has scored a few goals for Southampton and he is in a good place. 

“He got his goal against Moldova and you saw his goal against Denmark. It was a good goal and he showed great composure. He showed everything that is good about him against three strong and physical centre backs. Che is not the tallest but he is a strong bugger.”

There is a feelgood factor surrounding Scotland as a result of their six game winning run. Clarke knows his players have fed off the energy and positivity of the Hampden crowd in their wins over Israel last month and Denmark this week. He is confident that having the Tartan Army behind them will give them an edge in their next outing. 

“We wanted to finish this campaign on a high,” he said. “Some people would have said finishing with a point would have been a high. But we knew within the dressing room that we could play and get the win that would make it six in a row. The crowd reaction was fantastic and that is two games in a row now. They’ll bring that to the home play-off in March which is a boost to us.

“I will go into hibernation now for four months. It is a long time for the lads because you don’t know what is going to happen. It is nice to go into the deep winter months with a play-off to look forward to. We have got a team who can play on the pitch.”