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.
Craig Levein is currently riding a small wave of popularity after last week’s 3 -1 of Australia but for many Scotland supporters the jury is well and truly out in regards to his tenure as coach of the national team.
Last year’s Euro 2012 qualification campaign was dreadful in the extreme. Although we managed to push it to the last day Scotland only managed to record 2 wins against the mighty Liechtenstein, a home win and away draw against Lithuania and a home draw against the Czech Republic. Added to this we had the national embarrassment of playing against the Czech Republic with no strikers and his infamous ultra-defensive 4–6–0.
The friendly games have been only slightly more successful with credible wins against Denmark, Northern Ireland and Australia. But with equally soul destroying humpings against the USA and Sweden his record is mixed at best: Played – 20, Won – 10, Drawn – 3 and Lost – 7.
On his current record it is hard to understand why the SFA (Scottish Football Association) had the confidence to award him with a five and a half year deal.
His win percentage is 50 % in all games is also reflected in his competitive ratio of Played 8, Won 3, Drawn 2 and lost 3.
However it is not the underwhelming statistics that created doubt in the Scotland supporters minds but more his poor handling of several player problems in his short tenure.
Last week it was his erratic decisions in regards to Rangers players Lee Wallace and Ian Black which created a tsunami of criticism and forced grudging explanations from Levein and his right hand man Peter Houston. Levein then countered the media based assessments by banning the Daily Record from the following match press conference. An act which could be viewed as retaliatory broadside or a childish swipe.
All this pales into significance compared to the problem of Steven Fletcher and his exclusion from the national team. The ambiguity surrounding the Wolves strikers omission form recent squads is frustrating and confusing to the Scotland fans. Recent transfer speculation has seen Fletcher being valued at up to £15 million, an astronomical amount for a Scotland player even with consideration of the accepted British player premiums. Fletcher is a quality striker in the English Premier League and it could be argued the best British striker in a top 3 European league. Scotland can ill afford to discount such an asset.
The coach/player stand off seems to have been created from the exchange of several text messages (how 2006) in regards to previous team exclusion and involvement. Whatever happened in the past, now we have to grown men unable to pick up the phone; or even text to give the slightest inclination their feelings or concerns. Maybe neither want to lose face; maybe one or both need to grow up.
With the possibility of a potent attack of Steven Fletcher and Jordan Rhodes backed up with an English based squad of more than competent players, Scotland have team of great potential. The likes of which we have not seen since the late 90’s. Unlike Burley or Vogts before Levein cannot use the old of excuse of player quality as although his team is not top quality they better than previous squads.
The World Cup qualification draw was not kind to Scotland which was not surprising considering our recent tumble down the rankings. On paper Croatia and Serbia are better teams with more skillful individuals but with a little luck and a capability to score goals we can realistically hope to win some points, especially at home.
Belgium maybe a bridge to far and they should top the group in a similar fashion to Spain in the last group. With players like Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin De Bruyne its hard to look past the Belgians.
In truth Wales and Macedonia are of a similar level to Scotland and if we cannot take points against these teams then all is probably lost. The first two games are both at home against Serbia then Macedonia and realistically if we do not win both of these games we can forget qualification and dispose of Levein at the same time.
However if Levein can smooth over his teething problems and realise his SFA considered potential he will be given the opportunity push for our first successful qualification since 1988.
However in order to this he must have the Steven Fletcher in attack and a country 100% behind him neither of which he has right now.