Scotland’s double header against Serbia and Macedonia will go a long way to deciding our qualification fate, even at such an early stage.
As both games are at home 6 points are a necessity especially if we view Serbia as a runner-up contender. Previous campaigns have been lost in Hampden rather than on our travels. Plainly speaking if we lose at home then there is no chance of Pina Colada’s on the Copacabana.
Much of the pre-match and campaign talk has been unusually, optimistic. Scotland possesses strength in the forward areas which previous coaches bemoaned the lack of, but now we have an almost embarrassment of riches.
The emergence of Jordan Rhodes, Robert Snodgrass and Ross McCormack allied to mainstays like Steven Naismith, Kenny Miller and Shaun Maloney give Scotland a potent and capable attack for the first time in years.
However, a slew of injuries in defence means Scotland are scrambling for experience and sufficient quality at the back. The late exit of Charlie Mulgrew, Danny Fox and Russell Martin has dramatically weakened the previously, robust defensive wall and the last minute replacements Paul Dixon and Gary McKenzie lack international experience.
And herein lies the problem.
Scotland’s last two friendly matches have shown us their greatest weakness and strength.
The 5-1 humbling against the USA at the tail end of last season was dreadful. Landon Donovan ripped through a ponderous and static defence at will and left the Scottish defence battered, bruised and sapped of confidence. With consideration that it was the end of a long season and under the blazing, Jacksonville sun Scotland still looked disorganised and exposed.
Realistically we need an extra man to cover the space between defence and midfield: to aid the fragile centre halves and protect us when Alan Hutton goes on his marauding runs.
Gary Caldwell should fit into this position but then it deprives us of his services at centre half and his influence upon a sometimes flaky Christophe Berra.
Against Australia at Easter Road we were more adventurous and attack minded, even after going behind to an early wonder strike. The high tempo, kick and rush game suits Scotland and our abilities, there is no point in having unrealistic pretences to the “Tiki-Taki” Barcelona/Spain style when we don’t have players able to carry it out.
When the Scotland players are more combative and physical they impose themselves upon the game and the opponents. It’s in our nature to be confrontational and antagonistic and a football team at its best should reflect the characteristics of its people. Think Brazil and Holland in the 1970’s or France in the 1990’s.
Previous coaches have sacrificed attacking intrepidness and risk for cold hard pragmatism and uber-defence and while this was almost successful with Walter Smith and Alex McLeish the end result was the same: TV tournaments.
Craig Levein’s no-striker, 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic was met with howls of derision and exasperation and rightly so.
For the first time in years we have fine players who are capable and willing to attack and entertain so the least the coach should do is give them the opportunity to express themselves. But that is not to be too foolhardy and naïve as neither these players nor the fans can stomach many more 5-1 humblings.
I have my doubts about Craig Levein and his experimental line-ups and handling of the Steven Fletcher and Ian Black affairs but he has my full support none-the-less.
I hope he leads us all the way to the Maracana and to do this he needs 6 points against Serbia and Macedonia. Anything less and its warm Tennent’s at the T in the Park rather than a cool, Brahma on the Copacabana.
Line-up for Friday versus Serbia:
Alan Hutton Christophe Berra Paul Dixon
Steven Naismith James Morrison Shaun Maloney
key substitutes : Ross McCormack, Kenny Miller, Jamie Mackie, James Forrest or Don Cowie depending on injuries.
I’m fully aware that Levein will pick Miller alone up front.
The Serbs are going through a transitional period and blooding in many youth players.They have a number of danger players but most are inexperienced at International level. The main goal threat should come from Dejan Lekic who plays for Genclerbirligi in the Turkish first division. In defence they have Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea and Alexsandar Kolarov of Manchester City. Thankfully Dejan Stanković has retired.
Their coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, who was an extremely gifted footballer and free-kick specialist, has been bullish and confident in preparation however he has a chequered and controversial past and is prone to outlandish outbursts.