Friday, September 07, 2012

Scotland v Serbia: A winning start?

Finally we're ready to start.

Just as well. Given the rate we've been careering through the English divisions looking for fit defenders, Craig Levein's next call would have been to the reserve left back in Wallsend's under-11 squad.

He can step away from the phone now.

Levein's squad might not have room for the player that grabs the most headlines and maybe there is abundant talent missing for reasons both sensible and inane.

Yet it's the squad that the manager thinks offers him options enough to get off to the good start he desperately needs.

It's his job to back himself to pick the right players to take care of the task in hand.

In Scottish football the benefit of the doubt is rationed. Only yesterday Levein was being hauled over the Twitter and forum coals for failing to pick an injured player. The giant diddy.

That might make triumphs all the sweeter for a character such as Levein, an often contradictory mix of thin-skinned petulance and thrawn stubbornness.

Not that international management is a personality contest (he'd lose), it's about qualifying for tournaments (he might lose, he might yet succeed.)

Some say Levein has reinvigorated the squad with a comradeship that George Burley dismantled. Some say he's not up to the task.

It might be that he's used his club experience - at clubs fighting against dominant forces - to build an esprit de corps.

That might also be that can count against us at crucial times, our default dig-in, grind it out, one-for-all mentality proving hard to shake off in games we could dominate. In crucial games that can mean missed opportunities.

Still, Levein's had a qualification failure to learn from.

He should now have his blueprint for success. It's to be hoped he's also accepted the need for some flexibility (the right sort of flexibility. Not a 4-6-0 sort of flexibility.)

This looks a tight group but not an impossible one. Ladbrokes currently price us at 7/1 to qualify.

Belgium bulge with talent. Croatia are ranked in Fifa's - compromised - top ten. Serbia are ranked above us. As (just) are Wales. Macedonia have troubled us before.

A tough group, with the potential for more than a few bruising games. But Serbia have only one game in their last ten. Croatia two in their last seven and Belgium four in ten.

Scotland have won five from ten.

Opponents differ. Lies, damned lies and can't-be-arsed friendlies.

Yet none of these sides could be considered aristocrats of the international game at the moment (Belgium might be ennobled soon enough). There's no need for Scotland to cower like paupers.

A look at the odds for Saturday's clash with Serbia would seem to confirm that there's not much to choose between some of the Group A teams.

Scotland are 13/8 to win. The draw is 9/4. And Serbia are 13/8 to win.

Different things worry me. We seem to have produced a glut of midfielders but fewer defenders.

We're not full of goals. Kenny Miller - and it will be a shock if he doesn't start up front on his own - has 16 goals at a rate of one every 3.75 games.

That's far from prolific but it's more than the rest of the squad have managed between them.

In Jordan Rhodes we would seem to have goals in reserve but we don't yet know how Levein will opt to use him.

We're unlikely to want for grit and determination. Inspiration might be in short supply. And we're still not sure how the manager would handle it if he realised it was at his disposal.

In the recent friendly with Australia Gary Caldwell was played as a defensive midfielder - he'd sort of played there in the infamous Czech game but in reality we were all defenders that night - which might be a clue to the manager's thinking.

He's taken some stick over the years has Gary. But I'd rather have him at the heart of the defence. I suspect we might well see Christophe Berra and Andy Webster in there though with Caldwell cast as the protector to let the attacking midfielders - Shaun Maloney, Robert Snodgrass, James Morrison, Steven Naismith? - to lay down their lives in support of Kenny Miller.

As we search for opportunity in our midfield possibilities the Serbs don't seem overly fussed.

Borussia Dortmund defender Nevan Subutic has mentioned this Serbian team having "technical quality" on their side.

Which is a bit insulting to his hosts. But probably fair enough.

This is an evolving Serbia though, a squad even shorter on goals than Scotland yet still packed with players from successful club sides.

I'm torn on this one. Starting off with two home games is an advantage we need to grasp.

Failing to beat Serbia would be unfortunate. Losing would take a sledgehammer to our hopes.

But am I confident?

Serbia have failed to score in seven of their last ten games and have scored just four goals across those games.

Ladbrokes Game On!
That encourages me.

Enough to back a Scotland win. Ah, go on then.

Scotland to win 1-0 at 13/2?


Scotland to win and James Morrison to score at 8/1.

That would do for me.

And, for now, for Craig Levein and some of his critics.

All odds from Ladbrokes

Scotland: Starting blocks

What is a good start to a qualifying campaign?

That's been the subject of intense debate this week as Scotland prepare for another tilt at reaching a major championship.

Maybe not much of a debate actually.

First we had Craig Levein's assistant Peter Houston suggesting that four points from six against Serbia and Macedonia would be just swell.

Then we had just about everyone bellowing: "Catch yourself on Pedro, you muppet. It's six points or bust ya baldy numpty."

Which might lead one to the conclusion that six points is at least essential to heal the growing - but not yet irreparable - rift between the current Scotland regime and a public that has never been adoring.

We certainly know about bad starts.

Ten years ago today we found ourselves 2-0 down inside 12 minutes against the Faroe Islands in a performance of abject incompetence.

The team snatched a draw but Berti Vogts would forever have the stench of the "fool of the Faroes" hanging over him. And he reached a play-off.

So a good start is important.

In the current run of seven of failed qualifying campaign we've won two opening games, drawn four and lost one.

The most depressing thing is how many early points have been dropped to teams that we wouldn't consider qualification rivals (we tend to always consider ourselves as contenders, even as the law of averages and the blunt mallet of reality threaten to impudently destroy our unshakeable belief):
  • Euro 2000: Lithuania, drew 0-0 (Away)
  • World Cup 2002: Latvia, won 1-0 (Away)
  • Euro 2004: Faroe Islands, drew 2-2 (Away)
  • World Cup 2006: Slovenia, drew 0-0 (Away)
  • Euro 2008: Faroe Islands, won 6-0 (Home)
  • World Cup 2010: Macedonia, lost 1-0 (Away)
  • Euro 2012: Lithuania, drew 0-0 (Away)
Compare and contrast: In that golden age (did we fully appreciate it as such at the time?) when we qualified for nine tournaments in 28 years we kicked off with seven wins, one draw and just one defeat:
  • 1970 World Cup: Austria, won 2-0 (Home)
  • 1974 World Cup: Denmark, won 4-1 (Away)
  • 1978 World Cup: Czechoslovakia, won 2-0 (Away)
  • 1982 World Cup: Sweden, won 1-0 (Away)
  • 1986 World Cup: Iceland, won 3-0 (Home)
  • 1990 World Cup: Norway, won 2-1 (Away)
  • Euro 1992: Romania, won 2-1 (Home)
  • Euro 1996: Finland, won 2-0 (Away) 
  • 1998 World Cup: Austria, drew 0-0 (Away)
We didn't qualify for every tournament in those days though. And when we failed it was often after a bad start.

In six opening games in qualifying disappointments between 1970 and 1994 we lost three, won two and drew one. One of the wins (against East Germany in the 1984 European Champions qualifiers) was the only game we won in the group:
  • Euro 1972: Denmark, won 1-0 (Home)
  • Euro 1976: Spain, lost 2-1 (Home)
  • Euro 1980: Austria, lost 3-2 (Away)
  • Euro 1984: East Germany, won 2-0 (Home)
  • Euro 1988: Bulgaria, drew 0-0 (Home)
  • 1994 World Cup: Switzerland, lost 3-1 (Away)
From the qualifying stage of the 1970 World Cup we've had seven opening wins out of nine in successful campaigns. And just four opening wins out of 13 in unsuccessful campaigns.

International football is - as the cliché has it - much changed in the last 40 years. Some of our qualifications came from groups of just three teams. Some of them belied a good start and turned into desperate, last gasp battles to get through.

That makes it hard to draw conclusions from Scotland's opening game record through the years.

But it does harden the opinion that failing to beat Serbia at home will nudge our qualification chances to the impossible end of difficult.

We'll just need to trust that Levein and Houston realise that as well.

Otherwise we're doomed. And so are they.

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