With three balls left to draw I sat upright in my bed, a considerable effort when nursing the weekly Sunday hangover, it was tantalisingly close, were we about to draw England? As soon as the next ball was drawn I sat back down as Wales got their shot at the Auld Enemy. Minutes later and defending champions Spain concluded the draw for the 2012 European Championship Qualifiers and in doing so joined Scotland in Group I along with the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. While new boss Craig Levein hinted that he too would of loved to have drawn England he can look at a draw that gives Scotland a very good chance to end our self imposed exile from major tournaments.
Let’s get Spain out of the way first. When a player of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas isn’t even an automatic starter you know they are a class apart from the rest of the group. While in previous years Scotland have fancied their chances against teams such as France and The Netherlands, Spain are perhaps the best team in the world today and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. A gremlin in the electrics was the winner the last time the two teams met in a friendly that was postponed due to floodlight failure in Valencia. The score at the time was 1-1 and if we were to get anywhere near that result this time round I will be delighted. I have no doubt Scotland will demonstrate their master class against the Spanish of glorious failure but come the winter of 2011 it will be Scotland’s results against their other group opponents that will determine our Euro 2012 fate.
Liechtenstein should be the six points in the bag, but with Scotland it is never that simple. The Faroe Islands, Estonia and Georgia have all made telling contributions to qualification hopes from the fifth pot, with perhaps the defeat in Georgia being overlooked as the moment our chance slipped away to qualify for Euro 2008. However Craig Levein is the man to drum any doziness out of the team against the smaller nations and I can already hear the changing room rant if we fail to take a maximum haul from these games.
Lithuania are a familiar foe, and one that Scotland have a very good record against. In a pot where we could have drawn Cyprus, Wales or Slovenia; Lithuania are very much the best case scenario. It is a country and climate that we will be accustomed to and should be confident of getting six points from the two fixtures against them. Most of their players have played for Hearts at one stage in their career and almost all of them made very little impact at all. At this point I should stress that at no stage during this campaign should the words ‘a draw will be a good result’ be uttered, it’s a mentality that has blighted previous campaigns and if we are to qualify for our first major tournament for 14 years games like those against Liechtenstein and Lithuania need to be ones where maximum points is the only result.
Finally there is the Czech Republic; a team that if we had drawn five years ago we would fear but now should face with the genuine belief that we can beat them both home and away. Pessimists will point to the fact that they always beat us but this is a very different Czech team from the one we faced in previous campaigns. The Czech Republic failed to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa and gone are the days of Nedved and Poborsky running the show. Ironically we get to see exactly how they will shape up in a few weeks time as we are scheduled to take them on in a friendly at Hampden in Craig Levein’s first match in charge; that game now takes on a totally different dynamic. Personally I would be inclined to try and find another opponent and leave our next encounter with the Czech’s for the qualifying campaign. It might be semantics but I doubt either coach would be keen to reveal their hand before the real business of qualification begins.
They were held by Northern Ireland twice and in a group that also consisted of Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland they only managed victories over the Polish and Slovenians in Prague. This is a team that Scotland can get at and from Craig Levein’s initial reaction after the draw you get the impression he is quite pleased with the task that has been presented to him.
There is plenty of debate about whether or not being in a five team group is a disadvantage but in truth it is irrelevant and while the majority favour the six team format, Scotland’s kind draw has left us with a lighter schedule and perhaps more importantly for Scotland a couple less opportunities to make a hash of it. The idea of a 7000 mile round trip to Kazakhstan or Armenia only to draw 0-0 can be put to bed for this campaign at least.
Scotland should feel confident that this is a group we can progress from. We have a new manager, an immediate upgrade from George Burley, and with players like Barry Ferguson, Alan McGregor and Kris Boyd appearing set to return to the international fold, the squad will only be strengthened. For those that say they shouldn’t be anywhere near the squad I say to you that is a debate for another day. For now let’s concentrate on the fact that much like our group for the World Cup Scotland have been given a great chance of qualifying for a major tournament and this time I feel we can grab it with both hands.