As Lawrence Shankland and Kevin Nisbet seek to catch the eye of Steve Clarke and secure their place in the Scotland squad for Euro 2020, there can be no better stage than Hampden Park.
The national team will face Czech Republic and Croatia in Mount Florida during the tournament but, prior to those showpieces, both attacking hopefuls have the opportunity to prove they can thrive on that hallowed turf when Dundee United face Hibernian.
A place in the Scottish Cup final — financially, the biggest Scottish Cup final in recent history, given the estimated £3 million windfall awaiting the winners due to guaranteed European football until December — is at stake.
And both players will be key to their sides’ hopes.
Hibernian striker Nisbet has timed his run to perfection. The former Dunfermline and Raith Rovers talisman has scored four goals in his last seven club games and was selected in Clarke’s last squad to face Austria, Israel and Faroe Islands last month.
He made his international debut, coming on as a 68th-minute substitute in a 4-0 triumph over the Faroes.
The news of his omission in favour of Nisbet would have undoubtedly landed like a tonne of bricks on Shankland, who had become a well-kent face in the Scotland set-up.
He has only made four appearances, but has been a steady pick since his maiden call-up in October 2019; always relied upon to graft, press and, when needed, convert a crucial penalty, as he did in last year’s Euro 2020 playoff semi-final win over Israel.
However, Shankland has only scored eight times this season (and once in his last nine outings) compared to Nisbet’s tally of 17. If it comes down to a straight shoot-out, there will only be one winner.
The question is: will it? Or will Clarke take into account the areas in which Shankland has continued to thrive, even as the goals dried up.
Tale of the tape
So often seen as a one-dimensional goal-getter in his youth, Shankland’s game has undoubtedly developed during United’s campaign in the top-flight. He has illustrated versatility and a fine work ethic in Micky Mellon’s demanding 4-3-3.
‘Defend from the front,’ is the oft-repeated mantra and heat maps from Shankland’s last six starts in the Premiership — provided by Opta Sports — underline his willingness to work across the midfield line and defend deep on the flanks.
Nisbet, by contrast, is afforded the chance to do the majority of his work in central areas. The 24-year-old will occasionally drop deep to collect possession, hold the ball up and find a teammate, but will then dash for the box.
His movements into wide areas are sparse and rarely go beyond a foray to the left channel. However, the wing is the domain of the excellent Josh Doig.
The vast difference in amount of time both players actually spend in central areas due to the different shapes and priorities of United and Hibs make it unfair to compare the players solely on goals.
If Clarke is looking for a player to throw on in desperate search of a late goal; a predatory front-man whose instincts have been sharpened following a season of playing as an out-and-out ’No.9’, then Nisbet is the safer bet.
If he intends to select a player who has proved adept at contributing to the game, whether in or out of possession, then Shankland is back in the game — as statistics from both players’ last 10 Premiership starts illustrate.
Shankland may not ripple the net with the same regularity as Nisbet, but he affects the game more, has more touches, makes more passes and creates chances for others at a higher rate.
Clarke’s big call
UEFA’s decision to allow national teams to select three extra bodies — 26 instead of the usual 23 — has created a fascinating new dynamic, as has the unfortunate injury to Oli McBurnie.
Ché Adams, of course, is a certainty.
Is Leigh Griffiths a wildcard that Clarke will be tempted to include?
And, depending on where he lands on his other attacking dilemmas, will he go for the arch goal-getter, Nisbet, or the versatile grafter, Shankland.
One suspects Clarke’s mind is not quite made up — and a standout performance at Hampden on Saturday could quite literally be a game-changer for either man.