Saturday, September 03, 2011

Crucial: Scotland v Czech Republic

What madness is this?

Do I detect a hint of confidence creeping around this Scotland squad?

I feel I do.

So let us pause a while and pay some small tribute to the still oft maligned Craig Levein.

The disaster of the 4-6-0 formation in the away tie against Czech Republic.

The cover-your-eyes-and-pray-to-your-deity-of-choice win from the jaws of apocalypse against Liechtenstein at Hampden.

Levein has plodded diligently through it all. And, if we are to accept he is one of football's plodders, then who is to say the glamorous cavalier always rumoured to be waiting in the wings but never quite materialising would thrive with this group of players?

If modern football dictates Scotland have to cut their cloth according to limited resources who is to say Levein is not the journeyman tailor we need?

When the call went out for this - and we're legally obliged to call it thus - "crucial double header" every player answered.

No call offs, no sudden injuries, no flimsy excuses designed to buy enough time to plot and agitate during the remainder of the transfer window.

Exiles remain but they are largely unproven princes across the water.

In their stead Levein seems to have built a squad who want to be there, who want to play for him.

Spirit and passion are suffering a bad press in football at the moment. Skill and technique are everything.

That's a sound argument. But a technically gifted, luxuriously skilled team without any spirit can be left looking limited.

A team with passion in spades can be inspired within itself to offer the hardwork, the determination, the commitment, the dedication to overcome its limitations.

To wit, look at the squad - not just the few standout players - that Craig Brown took to successive major championships.

An old fashioned view? Almost certainly.

But we have to hope it retains some currency. Because we can't argue that Levein has world class talent to spare. We have to concede this squad is lacking in key areas.

To progress to play-offs or qualification we have to find that little bit extra, a little touch of something that can make us more than the sum of our parts, that helps us scale the peaks of our limitations.

It won't be easy. It never is.

But we've got ourselves into a position where it is possible. Now we have to make it happen. That starts today.

What of our Czech opponents?

They might be bamboozled still by the formation they faced in Prague. Their surprise was understandable. That was a Scotland performance that pulled off the double whammy of both underestimating our own strengths and overestimating our opponents strengths.

Beware the dangers of hubris. But this Czech team is not what it once was.

They remain a team we have beaten only once - and never in a competitive fixture - but they're not world beaters.

A Fifa ranking of 42 - pointless, meaningless etc etc but they allow for a comparison - might not even reflect recent form. Teams they've beaten recently include Liechtenstein, Scotland and Lithuania.

Teams they've failed to beat recently include Spain, Norway, Denmark, Croatia and Japan.

Tomas Rosicky is captain and inspiration. But, again acknowledging the danger of these words returning to bite me on the arse, does his recent form suggest he's the man to slay the Scots?

Milan Baros - still around, still knocking 'em in for Galatasaray - hasn't scored an international goal since filling his boots in a 7-0 win over San Marino in 2009.

Petr Cech misses out which at the very least removes a big presence from the side.

But Scotland really need to win this. A win isn't as crucial for the visitors.

The risk is that Scotland - aware of the crucialness of the first crucial part of this crucial double header - blast out from the start only to be met with frustration alllowing a patient Czech side to bide their time before punishing us on the break.

Levein has chosen tried and trusted for his team selection. Kenny Miller can play the lone striker role in his sleep now. He can't afford the lapses in profligacy that often affect him today.

Darren Fletcher returns to the team for the first time this year and his first appearance - reserve games apart - since coming on as a substitute in the Champions League final.

Not a risk according to Levein who - despite the brickbats that still come his captain's way - prefers to send out a Scotland team with Fletcher in midfield. It's a welcome return for the player. I sincerely hope that this rehabilitation in a Scotland jersey is not a gamble for the team.

Christophe Berra and Gary Caldwell start in the centre of defence. Many would have preferred to see Danny Wilson in there from the start.

Levein's cautious pragmatism was always likely to push him towards the more experienced partnership. Wilson's time will come. And it's only fair to point out that Berra has been part of a Wolves side that has conceded just one goal so far this season.

My personal concern would tend to be more over Caldwell's occasional lapses anyway but this is a position that we seem to be struggling with now where we once had an abundance of - riches might be pushing it - characters who could "do a job."

It's not a world beating team. I suspect it won't have to be. We can't afford to miss chances, lose concentration or gift goals.

Disciplined but with an acknowledgement that some commitment to attack is required.

That'll do for me. And a win, of course.

That's crucial.

> Here's the crucial Scotland side in full: McGregor; Hutton, Caldwell, Berra, Bardsley; Adam; Brown, Fletcher, Morrison, Naismith; Miller