Last week’s win over Australia provided Scotland with a timely morale boost ahead of the World Cup qualifying campaign, but, worryingly, it has also succeeded in raising expectations in some quarters that we can emerge from a mightily hazardous section and actually book a place at Brazil 2014.
As an eternal optimist when it comes to Scotland, I’ve often tipped them to win games when logic dictated there was no chance. Now, however, as much as the current squad is starting to shape up well under the much-maligned Craig Levein (eight wins from their last 14 games is not to be sniffed at), my first reaction is to dismiss our qualification chances as a pipe dream. That’s no slur on the team, it’s simply that at least three of our group rivals – Croatia, Belgium and Serbia – have significantly superior players. There’s also an argument that Wales, ranked beneath Scotland, are at least on a par, while even the supposed minnows of the group, Macedonia, made things difficult for the Scots only two campaigns ago.
The bookies, who “rarely get it wrong”, have Scotland priced up at a huge – but fair – 7/1 to be in Brazil. To put things in context, that is around the same price that Hearts are to eliminate Liverpool from the Europa League over two legs. Despite its unlikeliness, the Scots players and management have to believe that they have a chance – and so should the rest of us, to an extent. After all, if they can somehow win four or five of their home games, pick up the odd point away and hope that their rivals cut each others’ throats, they are in with a sniff. But we should be careful not to burden the team with unreasonable expectations and as a result tear them to shreds if and when they fail to qualify. We were, after all, drawn from the fourth pot for a reason – namely that, in the context of European national teams, we are pretty weak.
With our two goalkeepers, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon, set to miss the start of the campaign along with captain Darren Fletcher, that leaves Charlie Adam, who is deemed not good enough for a relatively mediocre Liverpool side, as our highest-profile player. After that in the illustrious stakes would probably be West Brom’s James Morrison, Everton’s Steven Naismith, QPR’s Jamie Mackie and Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley, and then the Wigan Athletic contingent of James McArthur, Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney. Ably supported by a cast of decent but hardly-spectacular players from the likes of Leeds, Cardiff, Celtic, Norwich, Blackburn and Vancouver Whitecaps, the Scots are hardly likely to have their rivals quaking in their boots.
While international refusenik Steven Fletcher, widely regarded as the best Scottish footballer around at the moment, can only attract the interest of mid-rank English Premier League side Sunderland, Croatia’s talisman, Luka Modric, is on the brink of a move to the mighty Real Madrid, while Belgium’s equivalent, Eden Hazard, has just made an eye-catching start to life at European champions Chelsea. Then there’s Everton’s Marouane Fellaini, who stole the show against Man United last night. Even Serbia, our first opponents and the third-best team in the group on paper, are operating in a different ball-park to us. Their captain, Nemanja Vidic, may have called it a day, but a look at their roster for last week’s 0-0 draw with Ireland reveals players from Man City, Chelsea, Udinese, Fiorentina, Lyon, Borussia Dortmund, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and CSKA Moscow. Meanwhile, we squabble over whether Ian Black should have been picked over John Rankin, Kenny McLean or Murray Davidson.
It’s little wonder that bookies already have the Serbs as marginal favourites to win the Hampden opener a fortnight on Saturday. With a horrible run of away games scheduled for the back end of the campaign, the consensus is that Scotland must take six points from their opening double-header against Serbia and Macedonia to have any hope, but even this, although within their grasp, is a tall order. Anyone who saw Czech Republic dominate the second half at Hampden last September will have little trouble envisaging the prospect of the technically-gifted Serbs taking the sting out of the game by playing keep-ball and leaving with a point.
On its own, a draw at home to Serbia is not a bad result for the current Scotland and would hardly be worthy of widespread scorn. In the context of a bid to qualify for the World Cup, however, it would probably signal the end and spark an unjustified outcry and calls for heads to roll.
Wanting Scotland to qualify for the 2014 World Cup is fair enough. Demanding that they do so is another matter entirely. If we take all the passion and one-eyed bias towards our national team out of the equation, any rational analysis would conclude that Scotland would be doing well merely to beat Wales to fourth spot.