Scotland vs Cyprus predictions: Clarke's men can go to town on visitors
Scotland begin their Euro 2024 qualification campaign with a Group A encounter against Cyprus at Hampden Park on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts — buoyed by the news boss Steve Clarke has agreed an extension until 2026 — are aiming to qualify for consecutive championships for the first time since 1996 and will face stiff opposition in the five-team pool from Spain, Norway, Georgia and the Cypriots, with two teams progressing to the finals.
Home advantage is theirs as they look to hit the ground running on the road to Germany.
First-choice goalkeeper Craig Gordon is unavailable due to injury, so Steve Clarke will have to make a call on whether to select Zander Clark, Liam Kelly or Angus Gunn as deputy.
Gunn, son of former Scotland goalkeeper Bryan, has starred between the posts for Norwich this season and boasts the highest save percentage of any Championship keeper — he is in the national team squad for the first time.
Blackburn Rovers defender Dom Hyam has also received a first call-up after representing Scotland as an under-17 and under-19.
For Cyprus, a familiar face in Scottish football could be back as Georgios Efrem — formerly of Rangers and Dundee — returns to his old home city.
Grigoris Kastanos featured in Salernitana's 2-2 draw with Lewis Ferguson's Bologna in Serie A recently, while Loizos Loizou has manned the flank for Omonoia in the Europa League under Neil Lennon.
Sporting Kansas City's Marinos Tzonis struck the only goal in Cyprus' Nations League win over Greece and could lead the line at Hampden.
Since falling to defeat in the World Cup qualification play-offs against Ukraine, Scotland have, by and large, impressed.
Four wins and a draw from their six-game Nations League cycle saw them promoted to the highest level in a perfect response to falling short ahead of Qatar, though a mid-November loss in a friendly against Turkey will have brought the Tartan Army down to earth.
Historically, the Scots have struggled on opening night — they have not won a European Championships qualifying curtain-raiser since 2006 — but they will fancy their chances of breaking that duck on Saturday afternoon against a side who have struggled across the board in recent years.
Cyprus have won just three of their last 25 competitive internationals, managing just a single victory in each of their last World Cup qualifying and Nations League groups.
A 3-2 win over Israel in a friendly in November atoned for a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria a few days before, but a 5-1 humbling at the hands of Kosovo in their most recent competitive international demonstrates their current level.
That said, their last two games against Scotland have been close-run affairs.
The Scots won both of their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Cyprus by a single goal, needing a last-minute Oli Burke effort to scrape to victory in Hampden four years ago in July.
Scotland should not be posed too many problems by Saturday's visitors, who have only managed competitive wins over Greece, Estonia, Slovenia and Luxembourg since 2019.
Steve Clarke has the chance to blood some new faces while laying down a marker for the game against Norway, who will likely be their strongest competitors for second spot behind Spain.
Expect the Cypriots — none of whose three goalkeepers are first-choice picks for their clubs — to struggle at Hampden.
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