Saturday, June 08, 2013

Croatia v Scotland: Gord almighty

It was a result predicted only by the deluded and Scottish Sun sage Kenny Millar.

Gordon Strachan conceded at full time that a win for Croatia was 90 percent certain.

Somehow Scotland made the most of their ten percent chance.

Percentages figured highly. It was, said captain James Morrison, a victory earned by players giving 110 percent to the cause.

Like Morrison I'm not a mathematician, but even I can see that our 110 trumps their 90 percent.

He'd wrapped a sound point in the cliche though. During the slump of recent years we've fielded teams full of hard workers but too often under George Burley and Craig Levein individual endeavour failed to become a cohesive collective effort.

Not last night. A team effort and a team win.

A meaningless win? Our qualifying race has already been run, last night was typically Scottish: glory when there's nothing left to play for.

Not quite. It certainly wasn't a meaningless game, Robert Snodgrass rammed a hole in Croatia's attempt to win automatic qualification.

This wasn't Scotland taking three points from a dead rubber.

It also gave an inexperienced squad a taste of beating a team ranked above them in the qualifying draw. The first time we've pulled that off since the win over Ukraine in 2007.

Only Alan Hutton and Shaun Maloney from last night's team featured in that 3-1 win at Hampden, four managers and almost six years ago.

When failing in the tougher games is all you know it becomes a hard habit to break.

A tangible benefit from last night is remaining in the group of fourth ranked nations for the next round of qualifiers - an anaemic measure of success but an achievement that prevents a hard task becoming even more difficult.

But the real meaning of the win in Zagreb might only become evident over time.

Strachan has looked frustrated since taking over as manager. Under Levein Scotland were going backwards, the new manager needed a platform to halt the decline.

What he got were limp performances from ever changing squads. The run up to the Croatian game was similarly disrupted by call offs but it also featured a fortnight free from domestic football, almost two weeks for the coaching staff and a young squad to figure out how to get the best from each other.

And if, as I mentioned before the game, Strachan's previous conservatism in selection attracted criticism he showed more flexibility here.

It's true that many changes were forced on him. But he appeared to embrace them and passed that adaptability on to his players.

He spoke last night of giving Russell Martin four weeks notice of his switch to the centre of defence. Morrison was asked to not only take on the responsibility of captain but also take on more of the defensive burden in midfield than he is used to.

Leigh Griffiths was fairly peripheral in attack but ceaseless in his effort, backing Strachan's decision not to send a late SOS to Canada for the experienced but rusty Kenny Miller.

Searching for his first win, Strachan wasn't risk averse. It's hard to imagine his immediate predecessors making the same choices or getting the same response from the players.

We should, of course, be wary of false dawns.

Strachan himself spoke of a performance that still leaves room for improvement. It's also true that Croatia stuttered when big chances came their way.

We remain second bottom of the group and we'll watch yet another tournament on the TV. There are still weaknesses and a lack of cover in certain areas.

What we might have seen is an evolution of the squad, players beginning to react to the demands of a new manager and that manager figuring out how to communicate his methods to a young squad, a squad full of players that will face our next qualification challenge.

Certainly Strachan has found his platform. He now has to build on it.

If we can have more days like this, of waking up to hangovers delivered by celebratory toasts instead of drowned sorrows, he'll be doing something right.