SCOTLAND supporters far and wide have been asking themselves the same vexing questions in the three months since the last international break back in June.

Were the poor displays against Ukraine in the Qatar 2022 play-off semi-final and the Republic of Ireland in the Nations League due to the scheduling of those fixtures and the highly unusual circumstances surrounding the first of them?

Would a place in the World Cup finals in November have been secured if their opening match had not been moved from March because of the war their opponents’ homeland? Was the huge groundswell of support for the visitors around the globe a factor in the outcome?

Were the players so badly out-of-sorts at Hampden and then the Aviva Stadium because they were mentally and physically exhausted at the end of what had been a long, hard season? Or were the desperately disappointing 3-1 and 3-0 defeats which were suffered the consequence of deeper underlying issues?

The home and away triumphs over Armenia which bookmarked the debacle in Dublin did little to reassure concerned Tartan Army footsoldiers that all is well. Their rivals were in 92nd place in the FIFA World Rankings.

Scotland will finally supply their fans with some answers in the forthcoming Group BI matches against Ukraine – the first of which will take place in front of a full house at Hampden this evening – and Ireland in the coming days.

With a Euro 2024 play-off spot going to the team which tops the section, it is important there is a significant improvement. 

Andy Robertson and his team mates went into the play-off encounter with Ukraine at the start of the summer with high hopes of recording a victory. They had, after all, been on an eight game unbeaten run. But they failed the scale the heights they had in the wins over Austria, Denmark and Israel in the preceding months.

Clarke, who has Ryan Fraser of Newcastle United, Nathan Patterson of Everton and Kieran Tierney of Arsenal available once again, is certainly optimistic that performance levels and results will be far better this time out.

As he looked back on the June game, the first competitive game the visitors had been involved in since the Russian invasion in February, he argued that preparations had been problematic.  

“Everybody knows how good Ukraine are,” he said. “They are a really good side. But the last game was a really unique situation where nobody sort of knew what to expect.

“I don’t think they caught us cold as such, but it was a unique game. It was a game that didn’t suit us, it suited them. We didn’t play as well as we can play. 

“It was just a build-up that didn’t suit us for various reasons. Some players finished in the first week in May, some in the second week. We didn’t have any continuity into that camp, which is why the March window would have been better for us. 

“We were in a better frame of mind, we had good momentum. It was a difficult window, and that’s not to make big excuses. We try not to do that, but we didn’t play to our level and if you don’t play to your level then normally you get beaten. We have to play to our level.

“The only thing we can do to address that is play better this time. If we play better this time and Ukraine play to their level then let’s see what the outcome.”

Clarke may be without his skipper Robertson for this triple header. The Liverpool defender is injured and will be replaced by either Greg Taylor or Aaron Hickey at left wing back.

However, the Scotland manager, whose side is second in Group B1 thanks to their victories over Armenia, is hoping his side can go into their match against Ukraine in Krakow next Tuesday with an opportunity to clinch top spot and that Euro 2024 play-off place.

He is acutely aware there can be no re-run of their June horror shows if their objective is to be achieved. 

“I think we are in a good position,” said Clarke. “We picked up the six points we needed. It wasn’t a good performance and it wasn’t a good result in Dublin, but we all know that so let’s move on. 

“What I would like from this week is to go to the last game against Ukraine in Poland with a realistic chance of topping the group. If we do that and give ourselves a chance to be top of the group that would be a good outcome. 

“Mathematically, it’s not a certainty that we need to win them both, but we certainly need to win one and not lose the other one. You can work out from that how many points we need.” 

Clarke is relaxed about the dearth of game time that Billy Gilmour, who was one of his best performers during Scotland’s hot streak of form last season, has had this season and looks set to select him alongside Callum McGregor in central midfield this evening.

Gilmour, who moved from Chelsea to their Premier League rivals Brighton at the start of the month, has only played a few minutes of competitive football in the 2022/23 campaign.

Clarke said: “Billy played in a closed-door game against Chelsea this weekend and got 45 minutes. Obviously, it was not a competitive game, but he got 45 minutes on the pitch. 

 “I think he is ready so. He is only a youngster. He is not like us old guys. They don’t get the creaky bones that we get.

“The fatigue and the tiredness might kick in at the second game. I always feel as long as they have worked properly at their clubs and done everything they have been asked to do at training, they have the first game.

“He has been fantastic for us, really good. That is why he is in the squad. It would be very easy for me to say: ‘Billy, you’ve not played any minutes, sorry I am not going to pick you this time’.  But I didn’t do that.”