Friday, June 07, 2013

Croatia v Scotland: Gord help us

Scotland strip 1986 World Cup
A two week build up to a Scotland qualifying match. Mounting excitement, ballooning optimism.

Not quite. More a growing sense of foreboding, a lengthening injury list, the challenge posed by Croatia looming ever larger.

That fortnight between the end of the domestic season and tonight's game always looked like it might prove problematic.

A squad already missing some familiar faces has had seven more withdrawals. When the players picked as cover fall by the wayside what is Gordon Strachan left with?

The game already looked daunting. Scotland are without a win in this campaign. Croatia are joint top and looking for their sixth win in seven games. We've only won six games in our last 22 competitive matches.

The experts at betting-news.co.uk will not be falling over themselves to back Scotland.

Much as I find the FIFA rankings an odd tool, recent form suggests the scores of team separating Scotland from Croatia's lofty top five position don't represent skewed statistics.

Strachan has spoken of the likelihood that Croatia will dominate possession. Hardly earth shattering tactical insight but a prospect that becomes grimmer still when you look at the lack of cover in central defence and the dearth of defensive midfielders.

It's also true that many griped that Strachan's first Scotland squads were too fixated on the conservatism that so infuriated his predecessor's detractors.

The manager might argue that it was a conservatism borne from a desire for consistency, to build a platform for a managed transition.

He'll be forced to embrace change tonight though. A new captain, a squad with a mighty 14 international goals between them, inexperience throughout.

Compare and contrast. Croatia have goals, experience, the confidence that comes from winning games and recent qualifications for major championships.

Their manager, Igor Stimac, said this week that "the Scotland team is a dangerous one. I will not allow you to take points from here."

A statement that straddles the fine line between the generosity of a welcoming host and the threatening demeanour of a nightclub bouncer.

But he'll know that - with Belgium enjoying a superior goal difference at the top of the table - a Croatian defeat tonight is unthinkable.

Just one point would do us. It looks depressingly likely that we'll need Stimac's team to show a collective generosity to their visitors for us to get even that.

Iceland, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania. The teams we've beaten in qualifiers in the last five years. Croatia won't fancy joining that list.

Gordon Strachan would be forgiven for occasionally thinking that there are better ways to earn a living than this.

As much I hope for a pleasant shock, tonight looks like providing more evidence of the scale of his task rather than any answers about he's going to fix a broken team.

Tonight might just leave us all in need of a holiday.