The journey has barely got underway but already Scotland have hit the first pothole on the road to Rio.
Craig Levein’s World Cup campaign is, of course, far from a write-off after just one game, but there’s little doubt a draw at home to Serbia in the opening match has somewhat dented hopes of reaching Brazil in two years’ time.
Now tomorrow night’s Hampden clash with Macedonia in the second qualifying match takes on the mantle of a “must win”, the visitors, in Levein’s estimation, a better side than their narrow 1-0 defeat by Group A favourites Croatia on Friday night might suggest.
Nonetheless, a defiant Levein insisted nothing had changed in the wake of this no-scoring draw despite his claim Scotland could win all ten of their group matches having been shattered in just 90 minutes. Adamant he had seen enough to convince him Scotland are still on track, he said: “We played against a good team and more than held our own.
“We are not talking about being fortunate, I felt we were unlucky not to win the game. But that’s football, it happens. We didn’t get the three points but it was not through a lack of trying or not getting into goal-scoring positions but through that little final pass, a simple pass at times that we did not execute.”
There were numerous instances to which Levein could point in what was a scrappy match, one in which both sides were guilty of surrendering possession too cheaply and choosing the wrong option although each team could also lay claim to moments in which they might have had the game won.
Scotland undoubtedly had the better chances, Robert Snodgrass knocking one first-half shot off the chest of Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbian goalkeeper securing a point for his nation late on as he got down to push aside substitute James Forrest’s low shot.
But he should have been beaten when Gary Caldwell, again impressing in that midfield holding role, won the ball and played the perfect pass to leave Steven Naismith with only Stojkovic to beat. But to the horror of everyone within Hampden - apart from a small pocket of Serbian fans - the Everton star pushed his shot wide of the far post.
Serbia, though, would point to a similar opportunity just prior to Forrest’s effort when Zoran Tosic’s astute pass found Andy Webster on the wrong side and trailing in the wake of Dusan Tadic as he raced in on Allan McGregor only to see the Scottish goalkeeper superbly push his shot aside.
It was the sort of game which looked as if it would take just one goal to swing it either way but there’s little doubt the Serbs were far happier with the point than Levein’s players.
Levein, though, remained upbeat, although as disappointed as anyone with the eventual outcome. Accepting fans’ views tend to be coloured by the result, he insisted: “I know I have to stand here after every match and talk about the match but for me it’s how many points we get in total at the end of the qualifying campaign.
“It wasn’t a disaster, we haven’t put ourselves in a hugely difficult position. We’d have loved to have won, but it was a decent performance.”
Levein was adamant he’d seen sufficiently encouraging signs to remain optimistic, not least the fact he knows key players such as Charlie Adam and James Morrison can produce much-improved performances, hopefully starting with tomorrow night.
The former Hearts boss said: “Charlie has been brilliant for us as has James. Their work-rate was fantastic, James must have covered every blade of grass, but these two lads will tell you they didn’t quite hit the standards they have recently.
“You were just waiting for Charlie providing a free-kick or corner, something, late in the game that might just be enough, that glimpse of quality.”
Levein offered a possible explanation in that the pitch had become “sticky” having dried out after being watered prior to kick-off, a small detail but one which he intends to address before tomorrow night’s match. He said: “You could see the ball getting stuck between the feet of players from both sides.
“Charlie and James are the type of players who like to move it quicker so a slicker surface might have helped. What gives me encouragement is that we will be better tomorrow.
Although Croatia and Belgium appear to have put themselves in pole position with their victories over Macedonia and Wales respectively, Levein insisted: “I don’t think anything has changed. I still feel exactly the same way as I felt before we started.
“People trying to pick the group results might have picked these three results. We did reasonably well, but we can do better. We had the game plan, it was apparent where we needed to hit them and we did it on numerous occasions without finding that killer ball.
“These things happen, you can’t guarantee every player is going to play to 100 per cent every week. I take great confidence from the way we went about our business. Defensively I felt we were good and the players deserve praise that a good team only got one clear-cut chance.
“Last time round we improved as we went along and I think we’ll do the same in this one. You don’t want to draw games. The effort put in by the players tells you how much we wanted to win the game. It just didn’t happen for us. We might drop some more points, that’s football.”
Having said that, Levein conceded there was no way he could guarantee victory against Macedonia but deep within himself he knows anything less than three points will make the dream of reaching the finals of a major tournament for the first time since France ‘98 somewhat far-fetched.
And while Macedonia lie 50 places below Scotland in the FIFA rankings, Levein knows tomorrow night is going to be far from easy. He said: “I’ve watched the DVDs and managed to catch a bit of their game in Zagreb [where a goal from ex-Rangers striker Nikica Jelavic took the points for Croatia].
The Scotland coach said: “They are a good side, they had more shots on goal than Croatia, more chances, more corners, hit the bar through Goran Pandev and should have had a penalty.
“They are no mugs. We know, and the players know, it will be a tough match but it’s one we will go into hugely positive for the three points.”