THE players who were responsible for Scotland slumping to demoralising and damaging back-to-back defeats in Euro 2020 qualifiers against Russia and Belgium can take their minds off the bitter disappointment straight away by focusing on their next game at club level this weekend.

Their manager Steve Clarke, however, must spend the next month mulling over the poor performances and bad results which have ended the national team’s chances of finishing runners-up in Group I and booking a place in next summer’s finals automatically.

The former Chelsea, Liverpool and Aston Villa assistant and West Brom, Reading and Kilmarnock head coach admits the days and weeks until the encounter with Russia in Moscow will take some adjusting to.

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“This is the bit I have to get my head around,” he said. “I have to get used to international management. The players will go back to their clubs, they will all be playing at the weekend, they will all be thinking about other things. My job is to stew on this, analyse the two performances and try to improve us for the next game.”

Clarke is, though, convinced he has seen small signs of progress, even in the 4-0 mauling by Belgium at Hampden on Monday night, in Scotland’s play and is looking to the future with hope not trepidation.

He is optimistic the national team can give a far better account of themselves in their final fixtures against Russia, San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan, secure third place in the section and go into the play-offs at the end of March with some much-needed momentum behind them.

“If you look at the Belgium game, a game against a very, very good team, the best team in the world, at times we did okay,” he said. “There were some good individual performances. There was a little bit of cohesion in the press at times, against a quick-passing team who counteract the press very well, which was good.

“So there are little things which we can see, which you have to give me time to work on and grow. If I can grow them then we can become a better team.

“Listen, I thought our press at times on Monday night was quite aggressive and quite good. We have to work on that. We have to do it more consistently, we have to do it more often. But that will come in time and with a little bit of work on the training ground."

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Clarke added: “You have to remember that the games coming up, with the exception of Russia who were also in the last eight of the last World Cup, will not be as difficult. These are the games we have to target and if we find a level of consistency and a level of performance then we have to get the points that get us to third position in the group. This is all I can look at.

“This is why we said in the dressing room that we have to target finishing third because it will mean we have gone from fifth to third and have won matches, have found a way of playing that suits us and it gives us that belief and that hope and that confidence going into the play-off games, which now are going to be absolutely crucial.”

With his side trailing 3-0 after little over half an hour on Monday evening, Clarke was staring a record reverse in the face in just his fourth game as Scotland manager. He admits that Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku relaxed after romping into an unassailable lead. But the fact his charges weathered the storm against the best team on the planet gave him some encouragement.

“At 3-0 down after 32 minutes I am weighing up the game, taking out the set plays and thinking there is some good stuff,” he said. “But at 3-0 down I am thinking ‘get to half-time’. That was what I was thinking. That was crucial. At half-time you can regroup, which I felt we did in the second-half.

“Listen, Belgium probably stepped off the gas a little bit at 3-0, but don’t forget their three goals didn’t come from open play in the first-half. They didn’t carve us open too many times. In the second-half we dealt with the ball quite well, we kept going, we didn’t stop.

“The biggest disappointment in the second-half was we conceded a poor goal near the end. Maybe a little bit of fatigue, a little of bit of mental tiredness from chasing a game when you know that realistically the game is already gone, meant we switched off a little bit at the end and conceded the fourth.”

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Clarke will make shoring up a back line which has conceded nine goals in their last three games his priority before the meeting with second-placed Russia in the Luzhniki Stadium on October 10. The fact Scotland conceded three goals from set plays against Belgium concerned him. He knows they must do better at free-kicks and corners in order to climb the table and have any chance of qualifying for Euro 2020.

“It’s not like us,” he said. “In my short spell in charge certainly, we’ve defended set plays quite well. So to concede at set plays against a team like Belgium is difficult and is something we have to address. Defensively, we have to improve. We concede too many goals.”