In The Mick of Time

I don’t think I have ever celebrated a goal quite like that before. A cascade of relief and joy washed over me as the last touch of the ball from Stephen McManus’ head provided a goal that prevented what would have been a humiliation that even for Scotland would be a tragedy too far. We won, and somehow despite 2 dubious displays we have conspired to be top of the group after the first round of games a position we should of found ourselves in when the fixtures were arranged. A way to ease in the new era. Well we now know things did not transpire quite that way but as the score came in from Olomouc it provided the perfect fillip to what had been a traumatic evening. Maybe that result in Kaunas wasn’t so bad after all.

As the final whistle blew mere seconds after the winning goal had sent Hampden into raptures boos were still to be heard around the national stadium, and I can’t decide whether these were being vented rightly or wrongly. On one side there is the fact we needed a 97th minute goal to beat Liechtenstein, who up until that point looked just as likely to score on the counter. There is the fact that we didn’t have a shot on target until after we went 1-0 down and the fact that some of the play coming from the midfield was appalling.

Flip it round though and the team showed great character after the shock of going behind and finally broke down a well organised, if slightly heavy-handed, Liechtenstein team who have in recent times had their fair share of ‘shock’ results and took  the art of time-wasting to a whole new level. I suppose it can be summarised by the fact we did what we needed to do and that was win, and with the news of Lithuania’s win hope springs eternal that the Czech Republic game next month is certainly winnable, but things need to improve.

Hopefully the clamber for 4-4-2 can be put to bed, it’s a system that can work if you are a good attacking team full of players that can outthink the opposition, but we unfortunately are not in that position. I never believed that was a solution to our habitual fear of scoring and there is no doubting Scotland play best when they play a lone striker and flood the midfield or defence accordingly dependent on the quality of the opposition. Even against a team such as Liechtenstein Kris Boyd did very little, yes we should have been good enough to provide him with the service but while Mario Frick was running the channels and dropping deep, Boyd was waiting for balls to him that never came or lumps up the pitch which were headed away with ease by the defence.

James McFadden often hailed as the saviour and darling of the Tartan Army had a frustrating game. Maybe he was weighed down by the expectations, maybe he wasn’t match sharp but nothing came off for him and he was rightly pulled at half time for James Morrison who although sometimes lacking in end product offered a more direct outlet on the wing. With Alex McLeish bringing in Alexander Hleb and Jean Beausjour Faddy could find himself some way down the pecking order at Birmingham and that is not good for him or for Scotland. The epitome of a confidence player, that spark that saw him put France to the sword seems to have deserted him.

Scott Brown did nothing to change opinions on his abilities in a Scotland shirt and players such as Charlie Adam and Graeme Dorrans must be pleased that due to suspension for the Czech game they are going to get the chance to stake there claim for a regular start. Once again the set piece delivery was on a sliding scale of ineptness, though ironically enough the one time we got it right was the one time it mattered. In Adam and Dorrans we have two players waiting in the wings who would give options in terms of quality and style of delivery instead of the ball being blindly handed to Barry Robson.

Defensively we look reliable and there is no doubt that the experience of Davie Weir has helped immensely, it also makes Stephen McManus a better player; left to do what he does best attacking the ball with Weir providing the cover in case he has one of his head rushes. Alan McGregor is a more than capable replacement for Craig Gordon while Alan Hutton was his usual marauding self, although his temperament needs to be checked. The more savvy Czech’s and Spanish will look to do the same as their Group I opponents by getting under his skin with niggles and strong challenges which in turn would result in blunting one of our more potent weapons.

However at left back there are problems on the horizon. There is a possibility that both Steven Whittaker and Lee Wallace, after he was brought down cynically, may not be fit for the October double header and that leaves us with a gap in a position that we have struggled to fill in recent time. The hope is, is that Wallace is fit and after a shaky start he seems to becoming more comfortable in a Scotland jersey and will hope to develop in to the same kind of threat as Alan Hutton on the opposite flank.

Upfront as I have alluded to earlier theere will beone striker whether it will be Kenny Miller or Steven Fletcher will boil down to form and fitness. Miller may have a better all round game but Fletcher is a far more clinical finisher, when that one chance comes, as it will do against the Spanish and the Czech Republic, with a player bearing down on the striker I know who I would choose.

In October Scotland will return to their more favoured role of underdog, away to the Czech Republic and then home to the World Champions. It seems instinctive to fans and players alike to revel in this role, expectations become more realistic and anything that happens is always seen as a bonus. The Czech Republic being defeated by a Lithuania team which were one of the worst we have faced, and we have faced them a fair few times, was a shock result and one that does not truly gauge what kind of level their current group of players is at. We can afford to be cautiously optimistic when we visit Prague as there is no reason why we cannot get a result and perhaps the knowledge that there will at least be one fresh face in the starting 11 may lead to an upturn in our attacking performances.

The relief on Craig Levein’s face as his glasses flew in the air was for all to see and although the performances have not lived up to the hype of his appointment I get the feeling that he is slowly implementing his ideas on the team. Time will tell if these ideas are what Scotland need to get to their first major championship for 14 years but starting the campaign against the perceived two weakest teams in the group should have allowed him room for manoeuvre and try a couple of things in a competitive environment. As it turned out, and is almost always the case, there was little room for such experimentation. 4 points from the first two games is a decent start, not great, irrespective of the way that we got them but bigger tests are coming down the road. Onwards to Prague.

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