THE Stadion Miejski in Rzeszow, a Polish city near the border with Ukraine, is the unlikely venue for Scotland's penultimate World Cup qualifier on Friday. Three points will all but guarantee second place in Group B and a place in October's play-offs.

On a footballing level it's clearly a very significant game, but emotionally it is far more meaningful for a Ukraine side who will remain as hosts despite the neutral venue. The players, who are now scattered at clubs in 15 different European countries, were reunited on Tuesday for the first time since February – and will remain in Rzeszow until June 28, when they play a further qualifier against Hungary.

The circumstances these footballers find themselves in are almost unimaginable, especially as most were with the two leading Ukrainian clubs, both based in heavily bombed Kharkiv, prior to the Russian invasion. Nevertheless, for 90 minutes at least the natural reaction of huge empathy with their plight must be suspended.

The corresponding game at Hampden in November nearly ended very badly for Scotland, with Abi Harrison's goal in the third minute of time added on required to salvage a point. That was quickly followed by an 8-0 drubbing by Spain in Seville – and at that stage there was widespread disillusionment among the long term support about the team's performances under head coach Pedro Martinez Losa.

Continuous talk of “it's a work in progress” did not sit well more than halfway through a World Cup qualifying campaign, albeit that the real blame lay with the Scottish FA board. They saved money for seven months by employing an interim head coach who was already on the payroll.

Nor were the three subsequent games at the Pinatar Cup inspiring either, but something appears to have clicked in Murcia because, despite the scoreline, the subsequent 2-0 loss to Spain at Hampden in April masked a vastly improved performance.

There was, clearly, evidence of a more purposeful, energetic style of play. The obvious aim on Friday is to build on that and all but ensure the play-off place ahead of the final game in the Faroe Islands on September 6.

“In terms of the evolution of every single player and the team, we can see it,” Martinez Losa said. “We are more prepared and I expect the team to get better.”

And Another Thing ...

IT has been a productive twelve months for Abi Harrison. The Bristol City striker won the golden boot in the English Championship (17 goals in 22 games) and was later voted player of the season in England's second tier.

The 24-year-old has also become a first choice Scotland player under Martinez Losa following just three appearances, all of them off the bench, prior to his arrival. Her first start was against Ukraine at Hampden in November, and, as above, she justified the faith shown in her by heading home the vital equaliser to prevent a damaging defeat and open her senior Scotland account.

Harrison, a graduate of a productive Celtic youth academy run by Paul Brownlie, was a prolific scorer at Hibernian between 2015 and 2019, winning six winners' medals in the two cup competitions. Unfortunately she was yet another ACL victim towards the end of her first year at Bristol, but since her Scotland starting debut against Ukraine has featured in all five subsequent games – with only one of them as a substitute.

“She's a key player because she's totally different from the other players,” Martinez Losa said. “We have Martha (Thomas) and Jane (Ross), but Abi is the most clinical in the box in front of goal.

“She was the top scorer and best player in the Championship in England, but we think she has the potential to reach all the levels. There is a process of work to make sure in a couple of years she is a top player.

“She can play in the FA WSL for sure.”

Harrison scored her second senior goal against Slovakia in the Pinatar Cup. A failure to convert chances was a big part of Scotland's abysmal failure to qualify for next month's Euros, so it would be a huge bonus for the national team if she can go on to fulfil Martinez Losa's prediction.

And Finally ...

I'M told Caroline Weir's new club will announce her signing on July 1. The Scotland midfielder has left Manchester City and is heavily rumoured to be joining Real Madrid.

The classy Weir won two FA Cups and two League Cups with City. The other team in Manchester will be relieved she has gone; Weir had a penchant for scoring spectacular goals against them.