THE young pretender he may be, but Jordan Rhodes isn’t about to knock goal king Kenny Miller off his throne – at least just not yet.
Rhodes took full advantage of Miller’s absence as Scotland completed their preparations for the next World Cup campaign – which gets underway in barely three weeks’ time – by taking less than half an hour to put Craig Levein’s side on the road to a 3-1 victory against Australia. While it was probably no more than many expected from a striker who claimed some 40 goals for Huddersfield Town last season, plus a clutch for Billy Stark’s Under-21 team, his 28th-minute header, cleverly pulling behind defender Sasa Ognenovski before nipping ahead of him to meet Danny Fox’s inviting cross, also answered those who questioned whether he could continue to do so the higher up the football ladder he travels. Miller, excused national service at his old stomping ground of Easter Road as he settles into his new life in Vancouver, will fully expect to return to face Serbia at Hampden on September 8, but Levein admitted he was delighted with the performance of a kid who looks set to one day assume the former Hibs, Rangers, Wolves and Celtic star’s crown.
Handed the coveted No.9 jersey on a one-off basis last night, Rhodes displayed the instinct of a predator in and around the penalty area and, as Levein observed, he could well have enjoyed a hat-trick on his first start at full international level. Nevertheless, he fully justified the manager’s decision to promote him, Levein having been irked before kick-off as Ian Black’s belated call-up hogged the headlines when he believed the more important story to be Rhodes.
A satisfied Levein said: “I was pleased. You do not like putting any pressure on a young guy making his starting debut in international football but he kind of put the pressure on himself by his record of scoring goals.
“He handled it extremely well, he did what I have watched him do on countless occasions. Whenever the ball goes in to the box he has this fantastic ability to anticipate where it is going to drop and he did it again.
“When we knew he was playing, we did some work in training just getting the ball in the box to see if we could help him get a goal, and he could have had three. I thought he handled the occasion extremely well considering the pressure that was on him.”
Levein was also no doubt relieved at Rhodes’ contribution, admitting he isn’t overly blessed with strikers, but insisting that, for the time being, Miller remains his first choice. He said: “Kenny has proved over a period of time he can score goals on big occasions. This was an ideal opportunity to see Jordan but I still feel that after one game he has to be a little bit patient.”
This game, of course, wasn’t just about Rhodes, as it provided Levein with the chance to run through a number of options ahead of the serious stuff as Scotland went into the match missing the likes of Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown, James McArthur, Phil Bardsley, Jamie Mackie and Steven Whittaker.
Danny Fox of Southampton returned to the international scene after a three-year absence, Robert Snodgrass did himself no harm as he picked up his sixth cap, while Ross McCormack, having publicly voiced his frustration at being overlooked in the past, stepped from the bench to score the third and clinching goal of the win. Gary Caldwell anchored midfield instead of taking his usual centre-half berth, again with a view to what might be in the months to come, with Andy Webster and former Hearts colleague Christophe Berra formed a new-look defensive pairing. Regarding the absentees, Levein reasoned: “I have problems if I get to the Serbia match and I do not have any of these guys back or I lose some more. I have to have some sort of options and you know Gary, put him at centre-back and he plays well, put him in central midfield, he plays well.
“He is a great passer of the ball but most importantly he is someone that others look to and get inspired by. I was really pleased but in no way surprised by his performance.”
Caldwell allowed Charlie Adam, as Aussie coach Holger Osieck conceded, to run the show, with Fox and Steven Naismith providing the width on the left and Alan Hutton and Snodgrass threatening on the right flank. Scotland’s passing and movement was impressive from the off, a couple of crosses from Snodgrass just eluding Rhodes before the youngster got his head to Hutton’s ball, only to nod it just wide of Mark Schwarzer’s left-hand post. But the Scots’ dominance was shaken when Australia took the lead amid a welter of controversy. David Carney’s quick throw caught the home defence napping as Robbie Kruse hit the bye-line only for Caldwell to come in with a superb block. The ball appeared to go behind but Kruse knocked it across goal where Alex Brosque’s shot crossed the line before hitting the hand of Fox and being scrambled to safety.
Berra got distance on his header from the resulting corner but Mark Bresciano thundered home a stunning volley from 30 yards. Helpless goalkeeper Allan McGregor suffered a groin injury in throwing himself across goal in vain, before Rhodes equalised. McGregor’s replacement, Matt Gilks, made a terrific save to prevent Luke Wilkshire putting the Aussies ahead again.
But disaster struck for the visitors as sub Jason Davidson headed Fox’s cross into his own net and then Ognenovksi was robbed by McCormack, who drilled home a low shot 14 minutes from time. Levein reckoned Scotland’s own 5-1 trouncing by the United States in May had given his side an edge. “I was a bit worried about this game considering Australia are well above us in the rankings but we had a really poor result in America and it was important we were switched on for this match,” he said.
As pleasing as both the result and performance might have been, Levein knows full well the impending visit of Serbia is all that matters. He said: “It’s the most important thing but what I learned is that I might have found one or two other players who are capable of stepping in if we have any problems.”
Scotland (4-1-4-1): McGregor (Gilks 22), Hutton (Martin 67), Webster, Berra, Fox (Mulgrew 69); Caldwell (Black 87); Snodgrass, Morrison (Maloney 27), Adam, Naismith; Rhodes (McCormack 67). Subs not used: Marshall, Goodwillie, Philips, Cowie, Bannan.
Australia (4-4-1-1): Schwartzer (Federici 46); Williams, Neil, Ognenovski (McGowan 78), Carney (Davidson 59); Wilkshire, Valeri, Bresciano Jedinak 46), Kruse; Holman (McDonald 46); Bosque (Thompson 84). Subs not used: Langerak, Kilkenny.
Referee: Tom Harald Hagen (Norway).