With Scotland bang up against it in terms of qualifying for the World Cup, little comfort can be taken from the fact the upcoming games in which they can potentially revive their ailing hopes are both away from home. Despite claims from several players after last month’s double-header that playing away might suit them better, the evidence suggests otherwise.
With the consensus being that Scotland need at least four points from their visits to Wales and Belgium to retain any hope of qualifying, that realistically equates to requiring a win in Cardiff and a draw in Brussels. While both outcomes are achievable, that doesn’t mean they are likely. In fact, all logic suggests one point from six is the likeliest outcome for Scotland. Anyone overly optimistic about Scotland’s hopes in Cardiff would do well to look at the most recent evidence, where they would find that their away form has been utterly wretched.
Since the famous win in France over five years ago, Scotland have been humbled in Georgia, Macedonia, Holland, Norway, Japan, Wales, Sweden, Czech Republic (twice) and USA. Their best result on the road in that time was a 1-1 draw in a friendly in Slovenia earlier this year, with their only other moments of note on foreign soil being scoring a goal in Spain, and winning in Cyprus, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Oh, and there was also the two Carling Nations Cup wins over the Welsh and Northern Irish reserve sides.
Yet somehow Craig Levein’s team must muster a four-point haul from two away games which they will enter as underdogs. The Wales game is winnable, but, to do this, they will have to subdue a player in Gareth Bale, who is on a different level to anything Scotland have. The Tottenham player is capable of winning the game on his own if he’s in the mood, especially if Scotland prove as feeble as they were on their last two visits to the Welsh capital. All the more so if Bale’s midfield colleague, Aaron Ramsey, turns up in the same form which saw him outplay Scotland’s best player, Darren Fletcher, in the last Cardiff showdown between the teams three years ago.
The Welsh, of course, are said to be in a bit of a sorry state at the moment, but the Scots are not exactly in great fettle themselves. Serbia were also supposed to be in a bad way before they came to Hampden last month. Since then, they’ve had little trouble racking up four points from a possible six. We can only hope that the return of Steven and Darren Fletcher gives Scotland enough impetus to eke out a win. With the tartan-tinted specs removed, however, a 0-0 draw looks the likeliest outcome on Friday. As for Belgium, player for player, they are on an entirely different plane to the Scots. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to see our prospects looking much brighter by 10pm next Tuesday.
As Craig Levein is finding pretty much every time he names a squad, international management can be a thankless business. No sooner had the Scotland manager stunned the nation by recalling Steven Fletcher last week, than some were wailing “where’s Paul Dixon?” Granted, Dixon, pictured, defied expectations with a solid debut against Serbia, but it must be remembered that he was initially called in as fifth or sixth-choice left-back and, like most of his colleagues, didn’t exactly excel against Macedonia. As harsh as it may seem to overlook the Huddersfield player, Levein would have been neglecting his duties had he left out Danny Fox, one of the few Scots who has been a regular in the English Premier League this season, while you can only imagine the outcry from through west if Dixon was picked over Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew.
• ALMOST four years ago to the day, ex-Scotland manager George Burley went against popular opinion and threw on the relatively unheralded Steven Fletcher instead of Kris Boyd, who was scoring for fun in the SPL, at home to Norway. At the time Burley was derided for the decision, but Fletcher’s remarkable rise has surely vindicated his faith in the former Hibs player. Managers are paid to think outside the box and see things that the man in the street doesn’t. With this in mind, this observer has no beef with Levein’s initial decision to pick the highly-regarded young Blackpool winger, Matt Phillips, ahead of Kris Commons, who, despite his excellent start to the season, has not exactly lurched on to a different level to Scotland’s regular wide men.