Luxembourg are known as the Red Lions. It is a nickname that does not sit easily with a nation that has participated in every World Cup qualification campaign since 1934 but has yet to qualify for one.

Their performances have been more akin to a cuddly house cat than a wild beast during that time but there is context to be applied when assessing the Grand Duchy's football fortunes. For a start, at 613,894 inhabitants, Luxembourg's population is almost half the size of that of Greater Glasgow.

There is also a danger in sticking too rigidly to preconceived ideas about Luxembourg as a force at international level simply because of their historic status as European minnows. The domestic league is part-time with a smattering of players capable of forcing their way into the national team. The best of the local talent is Zac Hadji – son of Mustapha Hadji, a one-time star for Deportivo La Coruna and key member of the Morocco team that beat Scotland 3-0 at the 1998 World Cup – who scored 33 times in 27 matches for champions Fola Esch. Hadji, alas, is French-qualified.

It is a league where young talents look to secure quick transfers to professional teams. The strategy is encouraged by Paul Philipp, the Luxembourg Football Federation chairman, and progress has been tangible. When current manager Luc Holtz was appointed in 2010, Luxembourg sat 128th in the FIFA world rankings, now the Red Lions have reached 96th and are slowly starting to bare their teeth.

“They’re certainly on a sharp upward trajectory almost constantly for the better part of a decade now,” says Bence Horvath, a Hungarian who runs the Football In Luxembourg (@LuxembourgFooty) Twitter account. “The hope is that the team can continue the rise at the same speed.”

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It took a 92nd-minute goal by Norway's superstar striker Erling Haaland to break their resistance in Malaga on Wednesday night and they snatched a 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in a World Cup qualifier in March. The goalscorer that night was Gerson Rodrigues, a naturalised Portuguese-born attacker, who also scored the opening goal against the country of his birth in another qualifier three days later, before Portugal eventually fought back to win 3-1.

Horvath gives Philipp and Holtz, who won 54 and 55 caps respectively for their country, most of the credit for this relative uptick in fortunes but also reserves praise for the domestic clubs.

“Paul Philipp and Luc Holtz are the ultimate winning formula for the country’s football,” says Horvath. “[But] a lot of clubs decided to switch focus from signing ageing French and Belgian players from lower divisions to make use of their academies. In the last decade or so, the clubs put more emphasis on the youngsters. That obviously played into the hands of both Philipp and, even more so, Holtz.”

Certainly Holtz, who will become international football's longest-serving manager when Joachim Low departs Germany after Euro 2020, seems to have found a strategy that works on the pitch. Luxembourg are more defensively sound and will be no pushovers against Scotland, who have won just one of their last 11 friendlies, in the Stade Josy Barthel this evening.

“Holtz is a very innovative, modern coach who can use a big bunch of different formations while he’s also able to switch between them during matches,” says Horvath. “That versatility is largely unseen in other national teams, hence why I sometimes think that he is just too good for us. An organised defence is one thing he always makes sure regardless of the formation. Our attacking creativity in the central areas is usually in Vincent Thill’s hands. Gerson Rodrigues is the main man in attack and Danel Sinani is also a key cog up front.”

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The presence in the squad of Daniel da Mota – who has been around since the first days of the Holtz regime – has been a controversial talking point. The 35-year-old, who plays in the Italian fourth division, was one of the team's key forwards before losing E100,000 playing poker online in 2019 and allegedly threatening a 91-year-old woman to help him pay the debt from her pension. Da Mota received a two-year suspended prison sentence and was dropped from the team but, after apologising, he returned to the squad for the Norway match, winning his 100th cap from the bench.

Luxembourg have never qualified for a major finals and boast just 64 victories in 109 years but, having jumped more than 100 places in the world rankings since 2006, they are no longer mere pussycats on the international stage.

“I’m hopeful of a European Championship appearance at least once in the next 15 to 20 years,” says Horvath. “I don’t think it’s an unachievable goal.”