Scotland vs RussiaEuro 2020, KO: 19:45 Sep 6, 2019, Hampden
STEVE CLARKE is a master at getting the best out of the players at his disposal but even he will struggle to come up with a game plan to keep the Russians at bay.
Central defence has been Scotland's Achilles heel for years but they head into this Euro 2020 qualifier looking even more fragile than usual.
Injuries to Scott McKenna, Stuart Findlay, John Souttar and Grant Hanley left Clarke with just two recognised centre-backs from the squad he originally named for the double header with Russia and Belgium.
One of those players, Leeds stopper Liam Cooper, has yet to win a full cap while the other, Charlie Mulgrew, has been struggling to hold down a place in the Wigan starting line-up, featuring just twice.
Clarke responded to the injuries by calling up Aberdeen's Mikey Devlin and David Bates of Sheffield Wednesday but they have suffered from a lack of playing time as well.
Devlin has yet to win a senior cap and has played just twice for the Dons this term while Bates has featured once for the Owls, in an EFL Cup match at Rotherham, since his move from Hamburg.
So while Clarke will no doubt try his best to drill the Scots into a organised unit, they look hopelessly ill equipped to deal with a Russian attack spearheaded by battering ram Artem Dzyuba.
The Zenit striker was a talisman at the World Cup for Russia as they came so close to reaching the semi-finals on home soil and has continued that form in the Euro qualifiers.
Dzyuba scored four in the 9-0 rout of San Marino and was also on target in the impressive 4-0 victory in Kazakhstan, a country where the Scots were embarrassed 3-0 in the nadir of Alex McLeish's disastrous reign.
Russia's only blemish so far in Euro qualifying was a 3-1 loss in Belgium but they still managed to score against Roberto Martinez's superstars. So Scotland's brittle defence, which conceded against Cyprus in Clarke's first match at Hampden, don't stand much of a chance of stopping them.
The Russians are 7/4 with Bet365 for a Hampden win and that looks great value considering Clarke's crisis at the back. The odds on Russia scoring are unsurprisingly poor at a best 5/11 with Sportingbet but they increase to a tempting 4/1 with William Hill for a goal in both halves.
Dzyuba is the man most likely to do the damage and he's 11/2 with Betway to break the deadlock and a tempting 9/4 with Paddy Power to score at any time. He boasts four goals from eight games with Zenit so far this season so is in decent shape heading into this one.
Kilmarnock right-back Stephen O'Donnell also looks a bit out of his depth at international level and could have a tough time up against Denis Cheryshev of Valencia. The winger with a wand of a left foot is 22/5 with Unibet for anytime scorer, although he could be a bit rusty after starting the season on Valencia's bench.
Thankfully for Clarke, the outlook is far rosier when it comes to midfield and attack for Scotland. Any three from Callum McGregor, John McGinn, Stuart Armstrong, Scott McTominay and Ryan Christie would offer pace, power and a goal threat from central midfield while James Forrest and Ryan Fraser are a huge threat on the flanks.
The only problem is Scotland also lack a quality centre-forward, with Sheffield United's Oli McBurnie, Sporting Kansas City's Johnny Russell or West Brom winger Matt Phillips likely to get the nod up front. Veteran Stevie Naismith is the best of the bunch but the Hearts star is still searching for fitness after injury so is likely to start on the bench as he seeks his 50th cap.
English-born McBurnie angered sections of the Tartan Army after a video emerged on Twitter that appeared to show him showing a lack of desire to play for Scotland.
A goal against Russia would repair most of the damage and he's 3-1 with Unibet for anytime scorer, although I'm more inclined to go with red-hot Celtic playmaker Christie at 6/1 with the same firm.
I can see there being a few goals in this one, despite Clarke being noted for his pragmatic approach. Sitting back with such a patched-up defence would be a dangerous tactic so Scotland's best chance surely comes from taking the game to the Russians. Over 2.5 goals is a generous 28/17 with Sportingbet and I'll be having a nibble at that.
This Euro 2020 match between Scotland and Russia will be played on Sep 6, 2019 and kick off at 19:45