STEVE Clarke has been quite correct to talk up Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the Euro 2020 finals automatically and target a draw or even a win against Belgium this evening since the defeat to Russia at Hampden on Friday night.

What else could he conceivably do? Say his side had no hope whatsoever of getting a result against the leading team in the FIFA World Rankings, finishing runners-up in Group I and achieving their goal?

You can only imagine the outcry among the supporters if the manager had been so negative about his charges’ future prospects. It would, too, have done little for ticket sales for the forthcoming fixtures. The SFA would have been far from impressed.

Yet, Clarke will know full well in the wake of the poor performance and damaging loss to Stanislav Cherchesov’s men last week that the play-offs now provide the best, perhaps only, opportunity to progress.

A defeat to Belgium tonight coupled with a Russia triumph over Kazakhstan will leave the national team nine points adrift of the second-placed side with four games remaining. They will need them to suffer a spectacular collapse and experience a dramatic upturn in fortunes themselves. Neither is, let’s face it, likely to happen.

As hard as it will be for the members of the Tartan Army, who last attended a major tournament 21 long years ago at France ’98 to accept and who desperately long for a return to such a stage, to accept this campaign will be effectively over if, as is almost inevitable, their team fails to register a result tonight.

All, though, will not be lost. Clarke will then look towards the play-off matches at the end of March to secure a finals spot. Negotiating those games is a far more realistic objective than finishing above two teams who were involved in the latter stages of the World Cup last summer.

It was always asking a lot - even for a man who worked wonders during his two seasons in the dugout at Kilmarnock in his native Ayrshire - to take over a team which had been thrashed by Kazakhstan in their opening Euro 2020 qualifier in March and then booed off the field after an underwhelming win over San Marino a few days later and instantly resurrect their fortunes.

But the former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool assistant can use the meetings with Russia next month and then San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan after that to mould a team capable of overcoming the likes of Bulgaria, Israel, Norway and Serbia next year.

“The planning and the work would be going into these games anyway because I’m trying to implement my ideas into these games, the Russian game, this game and the next game away in Russia,” said Clarke yesterday. “I will always be trying to implement the ideas. What you’ve got to remember is that we have to grow as a group.”

The 56-year-old will have learned a great deal about the players at his disposal and the unique challenges of managing at international level during his three games in charge so far in general and in the loss at the hands of Russia in particular.

He should have settled upon a system that works and have realised the personnel he can rely on by the time the play-offs come around. He may, too, have a few key players back and available for selection. He has been unable to call on the services of Leigh Griffiths and Kieran Tierney since succeeding Alex McLeish. He is currently without Callum Paterson, Scott McKenna and John Souttar.

The standard of side that Scotland will face in the play-offs thanks to their dramatic success in the Nations League last year will be nowhere near as formidable as in their Euro 2020 qualifying section. Bulgaria, for instance, are currently bottom of Group A following a 4-0 thrashing by England at Wembley on Saturday with just two points to their name.

There have been some positives from Clarke’s short and eventful tenure. In David Marshall he has a keeper who can be relied on. The Wigan man kept the scoreline respectable against Russia. Robert Snodgrass has returned to the fold. There haven’t been any of the murmurings of discontent which there were previously.

The encounter with Belgium tonight promises to be a difficult watch for Scotland fans. The visitors will have world-class players in every position on the park as well as on the bench. There could, however, be something for them to cheer going forward.