THE Steve Clarke era has officially begun. Saturday's last-gasp 2-1 win over Cyprus was followed up with a chastening 3-0 defeat in Belgium on Tuesday evening and while the national side are certainly moving in the right direction, automatic qualification for Euro 2020 is looking like an increasingly tall order for the former Kilmarnock boss.

While three points was probably about as much as we could have reasonably hoped for from the recent double-header, it still isn't enough, frankly. Yes, we only trail second-placed Russia by three points - and, crucially, have yet to face Stanislav Cherchesov's side - but the gap between ourselves and the World Cup quarter-finalists is as pronounced as it was when Euro 2020 qualifying began last year.

We're now four games into the qualifying campaign and the Russians have been one of the continent's unsung heroes thus far. Even if - and at this stage, it's a big if - Clarke can raise Scotland a level or two above where they were under the management of McLeish, it probably won't be enough to overhaul Russia. It won't be because we haven't significantly improved; it will be because our Group I rivals are much better than a lot of people give them credit for.


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The 2018 World Cup hosts enjoyed a fantastic tournament last summer, reaching the quarter-finals (knocking out Spain on the way) before ultimately getting knocked out on penalties by eventual runners-up Croatia. While many pundits were in agreement that Russia gave a good account of themselves at the tournament, there was a degree of mitigation attached to their achievements. Firstly, they were playing on home soil and so enjoyed an advantage that no other team could utilise. And secondly, there were a number of generally-unfancied teams that also overperformed and Russia's showing was overshadowed as a result. Croatia and England both progressed further than many expected at the tournament's outset and much of the media's focus was zeroed in on these countries as a result.

There was a widespread acceptance following the World Cup that Russia would revert to the mean and rejoin Europe's second-tier nations in the footballing landscape. But this simply has not happened. Russia's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign has got off to a blistering start and it will now take something special for Scotland to dislodge them from second place in our group.

After four games, Russia are leading the way in a variety of metrics in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. No team has scored more than goals than Russia, who have already netted 15 times. Okay, nine of those came against San Marino last Saturday but we've already seen how Scotland toiled against the same opposition. We laboured to a 2-0 win, while the Russians chalked up a record win.

No team in Europe has a higher expected goals (xG) than Russia - implying that Cherchesov's side are creating better chances than any other team - and only Italy and Spain average more shots per fixture. The Russia team's average crossing success of 53.23% is comfortably the best on the continent, and no-one averages nearly as many touches in the opposition box per game. In terms of stats, Russia are leading the way wherever you care to look.

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Russia have tasted defeat during this qualifying campaign - they lost 3-1 away to Belgium in Group I's opening fixture - but even in this game, they looked dangerous and capable of nicking a point for much of it, which is more than we can say. Where we lost in the most demoralising manner imaginable to Kazakhstan, Russia won 4-0. Sure, that was an especially poor performance from Alex McLeish's side but this still gives an indication of the calibre of the nation we're up against. We can struggle to a win over one team (like San Marino), and Russia will demolish them. We can suffer a shock defeat like Kazakhstan, while Russia will breeze to victory over the same opponents.

We like to think that we can maybe catch the Russians; that maybe we can come out on top in our double-header against them; that maybe they'll slip up somewhere else; that maybe the gap between ourselves and them isn't as big as it looks. The unpalatable truth, however, is that this is looking increasingly unlikely. Even if we can dramatically improve, Russia are a better side than many give them credit for and are likely to stay out of our reach.

There is still hope, of course, and it is far too soon to write off this qualifying campaign entirely, but perhaps a change in perception is required. Rather than agonising over points dropped here and there, we would be better served to take a holistic view of Scotland's progress. Allowing Clarke time to get his ideas across without focussing too heavily on results would serve us best in the long run rather than panicking because we needed a late winner against Cyprus to seal victory, or that we went away to one of the best international teams on the planet and didn't really get a sniff. Catching Russia might well prove beyond our grasp, but simply making progress in terms of performance should be all that we demand of Clarke for now.