As far as international friendlies go, there’s a fair degree of importance attached to tomorrow’s liaison in Slovenia for Craig Levein and his Scotland team.
Two years ago, there was no such pressure as Levein, then the people’s choice, prepared for his first game in charge, a friendly against Czech Republic, amid a wave of optimism. Since then, however, opinion has been polarised on the job the national team manager has done. Some critics will never forgive 4-6-0 in Prague and the fact Steven Fletcher withdrew his services under Levein’s watch. Then there are those who have recognised the clear upturn in results in 2011, which suggest he has learnt lessons.
So far, Levein has had no catastrophic results, but, by the same token, he has yet to register a reign-igniting victory. However, now that he has sussed out his preferred squad, the hope is that Scotland will be ready to hit the ground running when the World Cup qualifiers begin in September. A nationwide feelgood factor would go a long way to making that possible, and friendly victories – or encouraging performances, at least – are the only way Levein can haul some of his doubters back onside. A win away to Slovenia, friendly or not, would go down as the best result of his tenure and would be the perfect way to kick-off the second phase of his time in charge.
It would also go some way to silencing the wearisome “Beg to Fletcher” brigade. However, if Scotland crash in Koper against decent, but not formidable, opposition, the knives will come out and the pressure on Levein to grovel to Fletcher or even walk the plank will be cranked up. There’s a real sense that the manager needs a few nation-rousing displays to help fend off the vultures and banish the ghouls of Autumn 2010.
• Rarely can a game have obliterated public perception – or misplaced hype – as nicely as Arsenal’s resounding 5-2 demolition of Tottenham on Sunday. The philosophy Arsene Wenger has instilled in the Gunners over 16 majestic years is something to be admired in this wretched era of quick fixes and overspending. Yet the disrespect and ridicule he has been subjected to by some has been appalling. Arsenal have had a poor season by their own high standards and Wenger, like any manager, has his faults, but he has still had them in the top four every year and regularly in the latter stages of the Champions League. While Wenger has been portrayed as a washed-up dud in some quarters, Harry Redknapp has emerged as England’s Messiah after leading a fine Tottenham team to the fringes of title contention. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, however. Arsenal have had a bad season, yet are only seven points behind Spurs. As much as I rate Redknapp, he has a long way to go before he can be considered in the same league as Wenger. Perspective, please.
• If and when Hearts ever need a new manager, they won’t be short of impressive candidates if they opt to go down the former player route. A glance at the Scottish Football League tables shows three of the most iconic Jambos of the past 15 years – Steven Pressley (Falkirk), Colin Cameron (Cowdenbeath) and Paul Hartley (Alloa) – have their teams sitting at the head of affairs in the First, Second and Third Division respectively. This trio had the highest of standards as players. Impressive to see their drive and quality still shining through from the dugout.