Ina glowing testament to how popular the Scotland job is, every possible candidate is without a job after being punted in the last year.
The bookies favourite is Gordon Strachan who was relieved of his managerial position with Middlesborough after a fairly disastrous term. A genuine playing legend (thanks mainly to his goal versus West Germany in 1986 and the following goal celebration) he has had a mixed managerial career.
Although successful in Scotland with Celtic (3 league titles and 2 last 16 Champions League berths) Strachan had difficult spells at Southampton and Coventry City.
He is the popular choice with fans and journalists alike but may find it difficult to liaise with the hopeless Scottish Football Association.
Gary Caldwell is an accident waiting to happen. I have the horrible feeling that the Wigan Athletic centre half is going to give away a vital penalty when playing for Scotland.
Against Everton yesterday he gave away a penalty and was lucky not to concede a second after barging Nikola Jelavic to the ground needlessly.
The Scottish press love to cheer about former SPL players who move south. Caldwell is capable centre half who can get his body in the way but he is often clumsy in the box and picks up many cautions. He enjoys an exaggerated reputation north of the border mainly because he gives interviews and previously won the Player of the Season: as a centre midfielder.
I am fairly certain Levein will play him at the centre of defence along with Christophe Berra, totally ignoring the merits of Charlie Mulgrew. I hope I am wrong but I fear Caldwell will cost us.
On Saturday I was afforded the rare chance to take in two Serie A games in one afternoon, in the same stadium.
Although it was an early start: 10.45, AFNA (the state football authority) offered both matches for $10 or around £6.20. An amazing price considering you can’t even get a pie and a couple of cokes for £6.20 in the majority of the stadiums back home.
In the SPL you pay around £20-24 for a match day ticket and the standard of football is way below the Ecuadorian Serie A.
The IFFHS (International Federation of Football History and Statistics) recently rated Ecuador’s Serie A at 14th in world, while Scotland’s top tier at 25th. So it seems the Scottish supporters are paying 5 times the price for an inferior product.
In my opinion, Ecuador’s professional players have far more technique and skill than their Scottish counterparts as a result the entertainment is more pleasing to the eye.
Of course the safety standards of Scottish and English stadiums are far better but this still doesn’t account for such a huge difference in price. And remember Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar and the cost of living is not hugely different to the UK.
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 has announced a depleted squad for the friendly against Australia on Wednesday. Of the original squad listed last week Graham Dorrans, Jamie Mackie, Phil Bardsley and James Forrest have withdrawn due to injury. These are in addition to Darren Fletcher (long term health problems), Scott Brown, Kenny Miller (match fitness due to move to USA) and Steven Whittaker. All of which are first team squad regulars.
Levein has drafted in late replacements in David Goodwillie, Ross McCormack and somewhat controversially Ian Black
Black was recently bought by 3rd Division dwelling Rangers and only last week Levein intimated that as Rangers players are playing at such a low level he will not be including them in his squads (the example of Lee Wallace was cited). It seems however that he has already changed his opinion.
Of the squad of 23 only Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic,SPL) Andy Webster (Hearts, SPL) and Ian Black (Rangers, 3rd Div) currently ply their trade in Scotland with the majority either playing for EPL or Championship sides.
Robert Snodgrass sealed a move to Norwich City from Leeds United last month to join Steven Whittaker (who opted to Norwich as a free agent after Rangers administration) and Russell Martin.
These players together with: Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney (Wigan), Barry Bannan and Alan Hutton (Aston Villa), Danny Fox (Southampton), James Morrison (West Brom), Charlie Adam (Liverpool), Jamie Mackie (QPR) and Steven Naismith (Everton) means that the bulk of squad will be EPL based , which it has not been seen since the halcyon days of the 80’s and early 90’s.
Much is expected of free scoring Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield) who has been attracting interest from many EPL teams. With Kenny Miller (Vancouver Whitecaps) still settling into his new life in the MLS Rhodes along with David Goodwillie (Blackburn Rovers) will be given the opportunity to shine.
Also with Alan McGregor now playing for Besiktas of Turkey it could be argued that the Scottish squad is now playing collectively at a higher level than the previously SPL based squads.
One thing that is for sure is that they must perform far better than their last friendly outing against the USA where they were thumped 5 -1. That end of season game did little to improve the already fragile confidence of the Scots who wilted in the Florida sun. At times it was embarrassing as a Scottish supporter to watch as the Landon Donovon led Americans waltzed around our defence on the way to any easy victory and a personal hat-trick.
The game should prove to be good preparation for Scotland’s upcoming home World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Macedonia next month, before trips to Wales and Belgium in October. If Scotland are to stand any chance of qualification for Brazil 2014 they must hit the ground running and pick up at least 8 points from their opening 4 matches.
While Group A does not contain any European powerhouses, in reality the likes of Croatia and Belgium have far better players than Scotland’s.
Croatia impressed at times in Euro 2012 and were unlucky not to progress from a group including Spain and Italy. They have a healthy mix of stars like Nika Jelavic (Everton), Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur) and Nika Kranjcar (Dynamo Kiev) and must start as group favourites.
Belgium have not qualified for a World Cup since 2002 but currently have a slew of international stars in their side including Vincent Company (Manchester City and EPL player of the year), Eden Hazard (Chelsea and Ligue 1 player of the year) and Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal). However it remains to be seen if the Belgians can play as an international team as they do for their respective clubs.
Similarly Serbia have a host of players based in the strongest leagues in Europe. Although Dejan Stankovic has decided to retire Serbia can still count on Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) and rising star Miralem Sulejmani (Ajax).
Group A: Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, SCOTLAND, Macedonia, Wales
It could be argued that Serbia, Scotland , Macedonia and Wales are of much the same level and Croatia and Belgium will fight it out for 1st and 2nd places. But a good start to the campaign could see the Scots push the other teams all the way.
Whether Craig Levein is the man to lead the Scots to Brazil is open to question. His handling of the Steven Fletcher affair and the infamous 5-5-0 formation against the Czech Republic have not inspired confidence in the rank and file supporters. Although he seems to be the darling of the Scottish press and seems eager to “talk the talk” there has been little to impress on the field during his tenure.