There is never an ideal moment to be forced into self-isolation but for Shelley Kerr, the timing could hardly be worse.
After coming into contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus, Scotland’s manager must watch her team’s European Championship qualifiers in Portugal on Friday and Tuesday’s visit of Finland to Easter Road from the sofa.
Given that her team’s chances of qualifying for a third successive major women’s tournament are delicately poised, Kerr was desperate to be pacing the technical area in Lisbon’s Estádio do Restelo before facing the current Group E leaders in Edinburgh.
Scotland sit third, four points behind Finland – with a game in hand – and one point in arrears of Portugal. With qualification for the 16-team tournament to be played in England in 2022 afforded to group winners and selected second-placed sides – six of whom must play off for three slots in April – it is no exaggeration to say the next few days could help define Kerr’s international career.
Although Scotland will still have to travel to Cyprus and face Portugal at home to complete their postponed Group E fixtures on dates to be determined, their qualification chances should be somewhat less opaque by Tuesday night.
Kerr is in frequent Zoom contact with the players but coaching duties have been delegated to her assistant, Andy Thomson, as the squad endeavour to ensure they eventually join the Euro 2017 winners the Netherlands, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway in the “qualified” club.
“Shelley not being in camp hasn’t provided much disruption as she is still reaching us from afar and chatting to us regularly over Zoom,” says Arsenal’s Lisa Evans, back in the Scotland fold following injury. “But these are huge games, they are pivotal to our qualification chances and our aim to is win both of them. I fancy our chances.”
Thomson can only hope Evans’s instinct proves correct. Once a prolific, much-travelled striker he had a reputation as a “big-game” player, perhaps most notably scoring the winning goal at Wembley as Peter Taylor’s then Gillingham side beat Wigan in a 1999-2000 play-off final to secure a second-tier place for the first time.
Five months later Taylor, regarded as something of a mentor by Kerr’s assistant, made David Beckham England captain during his one game in temporary charge of the national side. Now Thomson must hope he makes the next two matches similarly memorable for Scotland fans.
A squad studded with leading lights from England’s WSL – Manchester City’s Caroline Weir, Manchester United’s Jane Ross, Erin Cuthbert of Chelsea and Arsenal’s Kim Little, Jen Beattie and Evans to name just a few – seems, on paper at least, more than capable of reaching the pandemic-delayed Euro 2022.
In reality things are far from straightforward. Finland possess invaluable inside knowledge of Kerr’s squad thanks to their Swedish coach, Anna Signeul, who was in charge of Scotland until three years ago, leading them to Euro 2017.
If last month’s 1-0 defeat to Signeul’s current side in Helsinki represented a setback, Kerr’s players can make amends against Francisco Neto’s Portugal. They lost 2-1 to the same opponents in the group stage of Euro 2017 in a game nonetheless notable for Cuthbert scoring Scotland’s first goal in a major tournament.
“Portugal have individual talent that can hurt you,” says Evans. “But, if we play to our potential, we’re more than capable of beating them. This team hasn’t reached its potential yet and we just want to show everyone how good we are. We could be such a threat at the Euros and that really spurs us on. If we qualify for these finals, we’ll be wanting to put our mark on the tournament and show everyone what we’re about.
“And the fact it’s in England is a massive incentive. We’re all really focused on getting there.”
Northern Ireland can guarantee second place in Group C, and at least a play-off spot, by winning their remaining games, at home to Belarus and the Faroe Islands on Friday and Tuesday respectively. If so they would progress at the expense of Wales, who need to beat Belarus in their final fixture on Tuesday and trust Northern Ireland stumble. Although both teams could finish level on points behind the group winners Norway, Northern Ireland would progress courtesy of having scored two away goals against Wales.
The Republic of Ireland’s slender chances of finishing second in Group I hinge on their beating the eight-times tournament winners Germany in Dublin on Tuesday but France can guarantee qualification, and top spot in Group G, with a home win against Austria on Friday night.