Scotland coach says Ukraine players ready for World Cup playoff


GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) – Scotland coach Steve Clarke understands why national team great Graeme Souness wants his country to lose against Ukraine in their emotionally charged World Cup playoff on Wednesday.

Clarke is hoping for a different outcome, though, and he expects Ukraine’s players to be “ready for the game” at Glasgow’s Hampden Park.

“Nothing but good thoughts for them and good wishes for them – except during the game,” Clarke said Tuesday of the Ukrainian team. “Because obviously they want to go to Qatar and represent their country. But I’m desperate to go to Qatar with Scotland.”

The winner will play Wales at Cardiff on Sunday with a World Cup place at stake.

The game against Scotland was postponed by FIFA in March because Ukraine could not field a team one month after its country was invaded by Russia. The war is ongoing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave his blessing for Ukraine’s players and coach Oleksandr Petrakov to leave their homeland to prepare for and play the game.

Souness, the former Liverpool and Scotland captain, said he wanted Ukraine to qualify because “it’s more important than football to send a message that Russia’s behavior is unacceptable.”

Souness’ comments were put to Clarke, who said: “I can’t put myself into anyone else’s mind. Everyone has their opinion. Everyone’s opinion will be different. I focus on myself. I want to go to Qatar with Scotland and the players want to go.”

But was Clarke disappointed with what Souness said?

“No, no,” he said. “Everybody can have their own opinion.”

Ukraine’s squad is made up of players who mostly have not played a competitive game for six months because of the war at home.

A month-long training camp in the safety of Slovenia has featured warm-up games arranged against clubs in Germany, Italy and Croatia, giving players from Ukrainian clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv a chance to get match sharp.

“Obviously, they are a known quantity – in international football, you can always go back to the last set of competitive fixtures,” Clarke said. “We haven’t played competitively since November, and the same as Ukraine. You can take bits from that.

“Obviously we could pick up footage from their friendly games which were more based on getting them up to match speed. Which they will be, because they’ve done 3-4 weeks of good training. They will be ready for the game, no worries.”

Clarke said Ukraine’s players find themselves in “an incredible situation.”

“How you’d deal with it yourself if you were out in that situation, you don’t know until you are there,” he said.

Clarke expects Scotland’s fans to respect Ukraine’s national anthem, even applaud it.

“Then I’m pretty sure the Tartan Army will sing their hearts out and get behind the (Scotland) team,” he said. “It’s really important for us that they are.”