FACING players like Luis Suarez, Fernando Torres and Raul Gonzalez are cherished memories for Andy Webster; games in which he eyeballed the best in the world and lived to tell the tale. Whether he reminisces so fondly about tonight’s meeting with Mario Mandzukic in Zagreb remains to be seen.
The Scotland centre-back is likely to be charged with taming one of the globe’s most potent forwards in the Maksimir Stadium. Croatia are going for points in their quest to top Group A and qualify automatically for World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Mandzukic is hungry, fresh from helping Bayern Munich win a glorious treble of Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup. For back-up, he can call upon Nikica Jelavic, Eduardo and Ivica Olic.
Webster’s task is an onerous one but at 31 he has garnered plenty experience against top-level strikers. Grant Hanley, ten years his junior, is his most likely central defensive partner this evening with Gordon Greer sidelined by tonsillitis. Webster is determined not to be intimidated by what awaits in a tie which means nothing to Scotland but everything to Croatia.
“Obviously you look at their striking options,” he said today. “Mandzukic is at Bayern Munich and Eduardo was at Arsenal, then there’s Olic and Jelavic as well. You know they’re talented. Regardless of what team they put out they will be top quality and it’s something we need to be aware of. You need to go out and express yourself and do your job to the best of your ability.
“Domestically I’ve played against Henrik Larsson and Ronald de Boer. With Scotland I’ve faced players like Raul and Fernando Torres – boys who you know have got real quality. But that’s why you do it and that’s what you want. I’m sure all the boys would rather be here than anywhere else. You get more experience playing against these players.”
Mandzukic was a standout in Dinamo Zagreb’s demolition of Hearts in the same stadium four years ago, however Webster will not ask any Tynecastle colleagues for advice on how to handle him. “I won’t speak to anyone at club level. You watch the Champions League final and see the quality he has,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter who is playing, they are going to have real quality up front. It’s not just one name. Croatia have got themselves to a stage where they’re competing at the highest level. Whether it’s number nine, ten, 24 or whoever, you know you’re going to be up against it. That’s what you want to test you, that’s why you play international football.”
Ultimately, players represent their countries with an ambition to reach a major finals. Scotland will again miss out on next summer’s World Cup as they cannot qualify from their group because of poor results in the campaign to date. Pride is all that is at stake tonight. “Going to a major tournament with your country would be the pinnacle of anybody’s career,” said Webster. “We’ve struggled in the recent past so it’s always something you’re looking to rectify. It’s an ambition for everybody to get their head down, work hard and try to make it happen.”
The next target is the 2016 European Championship, for which national coach Gordon Strachan is already preparing by introducing younger players to the Scotland squad. Ryan Jack, Leigh Griffiths, Tony Watt, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven have all been promoted from the under-21s to gain vital experience amongst the senior players. “In football, you’re always preparing. Firstly for the here and now, and secondly for the future,” explained Webster. “If these young boys come in and gain experience, it will only benefit the national team in the long run. You’re always looking to blood fresh talent and get them in at the deep end to see how they react. It’s the same for everybody, it’s an opportunity to do well. The young boys have nothing to fear, nothing to lose and everything to gain. Being away with the national squad and being involved in games will be invaluable to them.
“From my point of view, it’s a good opportunity to test yourself. I think it’s a great test. Any footballer wants to play against the best and Croatia are a top side with great individuals.”
A glance at FIFA’s World Rankings affirms the strength of Igor Stimac’s side. They are currently ranked fourth in the world, bettered only by Spain, Germany and Argentina. Scotland sit 74th, although that represents a climb of four places since last month. Starting in a positive manner and keeping the Croats subdued is vital if the visitors are to avoid defeat tonight.
“Before you go out you will say, ‘c’mon, let’s get off to a good start’,” explained Webster. “Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. In any match it’s important to start well. If you get on the front foot and have momentum going forward, it’s always easier from there rather than starting on the back foot.
“When you’re away from home, you’re looking to take the sting out of the game. You don’t want them building up any momentum. On the other hand, you have to impose yourselves on the game and look to score goals. There’s nothing worse than a team camped in and not looking to get forward. That just gives the opposition the impetus to bombard you. It’s a game of cat and mouse. You don’t want to over-expose yourself but you don’t want to invite them forward either.”
Webster is used to high-profile superstars bearing down on him. Naturally, he’d rather keep those occasions to a minimum.