HOME form is at the forefront of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s mind as he prepares to wind up this World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign.
Croatia are tonight’s visitors with the national team seeking their first win at Hampden Park since September 2011. On that occasion, Steven Naismith plundered the only goal of a narrow victory over Lithuania.
Scotland, particularly since Strachan succeeded Craig Levein, have evolved into a team which looks like away-day specialists. Winning against this evening’s opponents in Zagreb earlier this year was as unexpected as it was enjoyable for the Tartan Army. There was another victory last month in Macedonia as Ikechi Anya announced his arrival on the international stage. In between came a creditable display against England in a friendly at Wembley.
With Naismith likely to continue in the striking role this evening after a fine performance in Macedonia, perhaps it is time to put that two-year winless home run to an end. “It’s just finding a system that suits that set of players,” explained Strachan. “Away from home, we seem to have found that system. Maybe the way our players are developing just now, we’re better away from home.
“We need to find a system that suits us at home now, because you need those home victories before you do anything. Look at our couple of away victories. If you could add three home victories to that, then life would be great.
“The system at home might have been different if we had Fletcher, Forrest, Maloney and Phillips. I probably expected more from our home form than our away form when I came in. When everybody is fit, I’d imagine our home form will get better. It’s easier to set up a team that doesn’t want to lose too many goals than it is to set up a team to score lots of goals.”
Scotland, of course, cannot qualify from their section and are aiming to finish joint third on points with Serbia. Achieving that by beating Croatia – who are guaranteed second spot behind Belgium – would be a respectable way to finish a campaign which started so timidly under Levein. Croatia, though, are ranked tenth in the world. Scotland are 78th. Strachan is aware of the gulf.
Asked if he would make special plans for the talismanic Luka Modric, Strachan replied: “He actually takes the ball off the back four and plays from there so [if you were to ask a sitting midfielder to mark him] the sitting midfielder would be wondering where he is. Well, he’s away down there, beating people and hammering balls about all over the place.
“He’s an incredible footballer. If you get close to him, he’ll beat you. If you stand off him, he’ll pass. So you’re really trying to fill the areas he wants to play in. He’s just a wonderful footballer.
“We all noticed that Barcelona, without Messi against Celtic, they’re not the same. I think Croatia have great players but he is a bit special. Croatia played three at the back against Belgium the other night but might go to a flat back four against us.”
Scotland aren’t short on creativity either. Anya’s performance and goal against Macedonia lifted the nation, while there are other attack-minded Scots who are impressing up and down the country.
“It’s a bit difficult to play with two out-and-out wingers now,” said Strachan. “At least one has to be able to come in the park and make sure you aren’t outnumbered. I’ll have a wee dilemma between Anya and Chris Burke. Garry Pendrey was at the Birmingham game when Jesse Lingard scored four goals on his debut on loan from Man United. He said to me: ‘Forget it. The man of the match was Burke.’ Harry Redknapp told Burkey he was the best man on the pitch recently against QPR. Everywhere he’s gone recently, he’s been terrific.
“This team is built around what I think we should be doing with the ball, rather than what Croatia will do. The thoughts are more on what we can do. Man United had that many players that they could just say, ‘that’s the team for today. Bang, get on with it’. We’re not at that stage. We’ve got to do more work. When I was at Celtic, I used to go, ‘that’s the team for today, we’ll look at this attacking-wide to break down teams’. But, when I was at Coventry and Southampton, the players weren’t as good as Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea. We had to do much more work on shape and organisation. Scotland are similar.
“The players here have been good with that and hopefully it’s not boring, hopefully it’s interesting for them. Whether it’s right or whether it’s wrong, I don’t know. But I’d hate to go into a game where I don’t feel I’m prepared. I’d hate to think the players have a grey area.”
Preparing teams is when Strachan is at his happiest. Even though tonight’s encounter is meaningless in terms of qualification for Brazil next summer, the manager has stuck to his meticulous methods and even laid on double training sessions for his squad.
“The part of the job I love is being on the training field. This job is intense for me for five or six days and then I relax for another month. Stuart McCall [Strachan’s coach and Motherwell manager] goes through at the same level but it gets tiring for me. We had a day off on Sunday there and the players needed it too. We had done five training sessions in five days. Each session lasts an hour and 15 minutes at the most and they are very intense.”