THE awful, wonderful, exhilarating, dreadful aspect of football, particularly that of the Caledonian variety, lifts its head as Wembley peeks over the horizon tonight.

Hope, the sustenance and the tormentor of the Tartan Army, is the singular, intangible aspect that will accompany a nation, its players and a management team as Scotland play England in a World Cup qualifier.

Emotion is the only aspect that can fuel expectation of a victory for Scotland. Hard facts give Caledonian optimism a right good kicking. England won every match in the qualification for Euro 2016 and are unbeaten in this campaign. Scotland’s men, notoriously, have not qualified for a major competition since 1998.

It may also be pertinent to point out that Scotland are dangerously fallible in defence. Gordon Strachan, the Scotland manager, spoke last night of the importance of being astute in the “final third”, pointing out that his team were just a pass away from being formidable in front of goal.

However, the most fatal flaw lies in defence. The individuals that comprise the Scotland central defence – normally Grant Hanley and Russell Martin – have been routinely excoriated for their inability to keep attackers at bay. The fault is collective, however.

The truth is that Scotland almost certainly need two goals against England tonight to win. Scotland, after all, have conceded to Malta, Gibraltar and Georgia in competitive games. They lost three to Slovakia in the last match.

Hope is further diminished by a glance at the England squad. This is a team that may disappoint at major finals but does find the qualification process a breeze and possesses both skill and, crucially, pace.

Gareth Southgate, continuing his audition for the post as England manager, confirmed last night that Wayne Rooney will captain the side. The Manchester United player is no longer the irresistible force of old but he has enough nous and technique to produce the best from younger cohorts.

The quickness of such as Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Theo Walcott will stretch Scotland, perhaps to perdition.

So what has Scotland to offer in reply? Strachan misses Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson at left-back and faces a difficult decision over whether to play the buccaneering Lee Wallace on a night when defensive solidity is a priority. Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, returns, perhaps for a one-night engagement.

The most scrutinised selection will be who plays in the striker’s role. Leigh Griffiths of Celtic and a 40-goal season remains the pundits’ and the punters’ choice. Strachan, though, may continue with Chris Martin, on loan at Fulham from Derby County. The Scotland manager largely remains impervious to public clamour. This is a attribute that can be applauded in victory but when results turn sour – and Scotland’s have been as whiffy as prehistoric milk – then it becomes a focus of criticism.

This, of course, leads to the nub of the matter. There are those who insist that Scotland still have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. This correspondent is not one of this band of hope.

However, defeat tonight would surely convince the most optimistic that yet another campaign has ended in failure, this time after just four matches. These problems are long-standing and extend far beyond Strachan’s tenure and his control. However, Scotland should have had enough to beat Lithuania at home and have at least managed a shot on goal in the defeat to Georgia in the last campaign.

This, then, is either Gordon’s Last Stand or Gordon’s Redemption.

Strachan, in regards to the importance of the game, knows the score. He answered questions about the future with a breezy: “We will enjoy the challenge of the game, have a look at it, have a look at other results and take it from there.” Defeat will surely point to the exit door for the manager, though he could survive with a draw.

The prospects, too, can be gauged by Rooney’s selection. The Scouser has captained England on 19 occasions, losing only one match. This statistic would seem to quash all arguments proposing Scottish success. Yet that one loss was against Iceland.

Hope is the last to die. But the Caledonian kind is in intensive care.

Football: England manager puts faith in Wayne Rooney