THERE is, with John Fleck, John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Kenny McLean and Scott McTominay all vying for a start, hardly a shortage of quality central midfield players for Steve Clarke to choose from in Scotland’s double header against Russia and San Marino this week.

The absence of Ryan Jack, the Rangers player who has been ruled out through injury, and Stuart Armstrong, the Southampton man who hasn’t been selected, will not be particularly keenly felt in the Euro 2020 qualifiers in Moscow on Thursday or Glasgow on Sunday.

Clarke has the personnel in the middle of the park to approach matches in a variety of different ways and rest individuals if he feels that two high-intensity outings in the space of four days is asking too much of them. His only headache will be deciding who to pick and who to leave out.

That said, the absence of Armstrong, who has been dropped due to his lack of game time at Southampton this season, is still concerning.

The former Dundee United and Celtic player was integral to the unexpected revival the national team enjoyed in their Russia 2018 campaign. In fact, it is doubtful they would have gone into their last Group F tie against Slovenia in Llubljana two years ago tomorrow with a chance to reach the play-offs had it not been for him.

Armstrong had an immediate impact after making his international debut at the age of 24 six months earlier. He was sensational in a vital triumph over Slovenia at Hampden and supplied Chris Martin for the only goal of the game with a minute of regulation time remaining.

His showing left Gordon Strachan, whose job as manager depended on a triumph, in thrall. “Stuart Armstrong could be the best Scottish debut I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Yes, the player was castigated following the 2-2 draw with England in June for hitting a poor pass to Leigh Griffiths in injury-time and allowing Harry Kane to score a last-gasp equaliser. He didn’t disagree. “I should probably just have shelled it into row Z,” he said.

But he had again performed exceptionally during the course of 90 minutes. He complemented Scott Brown and James Morrison beautifully and helped the home side to recover after falling behind and come within a whisker of snatching a famous triumph.

He went on to impress in the 3-0 win over Lithuania away - a match in which he claimed his first international goal - and 2-0 victory over Malta at home which followed. His intelligent forward runs, composure on the ball, positional awareness, precise distribution and technical excellence were a joy to watch.

A hamstring injury ruled him out of the final fixtures against Slovakia, which his team mates edged 1-0 in his absence, and Slovenia, which they drew 2-2, to just, in time-honoured fashion, come up short of their objective.

Armstrong fulfilled his ambition to play in the Premier League down south when he signed for Southampton in a £7 million transfer last summer. His first season went well. He was a regular starter and scored three goals in the space of eight days against Fulham and Manchester United.

The change of manager at the St Mary’s Stadium, however, hasn’t been good for him. Mark Hughes was sacked last December and replaced by Ralph Hassenhuttl. This term he hasn’t started a single league game under the Austrian and has featured in little more than an hour of competitive football at club level. He was an unused replacement in his team’s 4-1 defeat at home yesterday afternoon. It was the story of his season.

Clarke admitted after the 4-0 trouncing by Belgium last month – a game which Armstrong came off the bench in – that he would use the remaining Group I outings to prepare for the Euro 2020 play-off matches in March. It will be a shame if Armstrong isn’t involved in that process and is omitted from the games against Cyprus away and Kazakhstan at home next month.

Having him fit and in-form heading into those would be hugely helpful to Scotland’s chances.

The 27-year-old should seriously consider going out on loan in January if he is still warming the bench, possibly even moving on permanently. He needs regular matches to return to the level he was at during his time at Celtic and get back in the national side.


PROOF that winning the Old Firm game, Glasgow derby match, call it what you will, isn't vital to the Ladbrokes Premiership chances of either Celtic or Rangers hasn't been in short supply this year.

The Ibrox club were tipped to end their city rivals' extended period of domestic dominance after battering them at home in December.

But Steven Gerrard's men followed up that 1-0 win with some poor performances and bad results in the second half of last season and finished nine points off top spot.

Last month it was claimed that Neil Lennon's charges, bidding to land a ninth consecutive Scottish title this term, had gained an important psychological edge over their nearest challengers after they triumphed 2-0 in Govan.

But since then Scott Brown and his team mates have drawn with Hibernian and lost to Livingston away to squander their three point lead.

James Tavernier and Co, meanwhile, have been hugely impressive since their painful derby , winning all four of their Premiership games, scoring 17 goals and conceding just one.

It shows that winning fixtures against easier opponents in front of smaller crowds and in less intense atmospheres matters just as much, if not more so, when it comes to the league.

Old Firm wins are celebrated joyously by fans. But beating, say, Ross County in a midweek match in Dingwall is every bit as important.