Scotland manager Craig Levein is looking to bolster his squad’s strength in depth ahead of a keenly competitive World Cup qualifying group by handing game time to some fringe players in Cyprus tonight.
Levein hopes to hand debuts to Huddersfield striker Jordan Rhodes and Blackpool goalkeeper Matt Gilks in Larnaca, most likely off the bench if the game is going Scotland’s way.
Like Scotland Under-21 striker Rhodes, Hearts midfielder Ryan Stevenson, MK Dons defender Gary MacKenzie and St Mirren goalkeeper Craig Samson are also in the squad for the first time.
And Levein has been delighted with how the newcomers have settled in. “I can say the lads have been excellent, they really have been,” said the manager. “It’s encouraging for me that we’ve got players on the fringes that I can bring in. I’m not saying they are all going to play but if they do get some game time that adds to the experience they have had in training and in my mind it makes it a little easier for me to choose them in matches if they are needed.
“It’s a case of trying to strengthen the pool of players for next September. In the meantime it’s up to myself and the players to be 100 per cent prepared.”
Scotland finished third behind Spain and the Czech Republic in their Euro 2012 qualifying group but there is no runaway favourite for their next campaign, which will see them face Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and bottom seeds Wales.
“The difference between our last qualifying campaign, we had Spain in the group which effectively meant one place was taken because of the quality of that team, so the rest of us were fighting for that second spot,” Levein said. “I believe that in this group, it’s so wide open that there are two places available.
“Croatia might disagree with that being the top seeds but I think Belgium, the way they have improved recently, they will be looking to be involved in those two.
“Serbia I’m sure will be and Wales’ improvement in recent times has been quite dramatic, and I feel we’ve improved enormously as well.
“So the group is wide open, I defy anybody to say otherwise, and everybody in the group has the opportunity to take points off each other. We need to keep improving and if we can do that, I’m confident we’ll have a good chance.”
Scotland captain Darren Fletcher, meanwhile, admits their friendly schedule will take on more importance with the best part of a year in between competitive fixtures.
Tonight’s clash in Larnaca, which kicks off at 6pm GMT, is the first of four games planned before Scotland begin their World Cup qualifying campaign. “Because there’s such a long time until the first qualifier, friendlies are important,” the Manchester United midfielder said.
“It’s vitally important that we create a club atmosphere and it is difficult to do, especially in friendlies, there are going to be call-offs. If you have a slight knock for a friendly you are going to pull out because you want to be fit for your club. That’s only natural, that’s happened many a time.
“But if there are injury call-offs it gives someone else the opportunity for someone else to stake a claim for a place in the team. If you’re injured and someone comes in and performs well, you sometimes find it hard to get back into the team.
“So I’ve always been of the opinion that friendly games are important because you’ve got to stay there to keep your place in the team.”
Fletcher, who will brush off a minor niggle to play in Larnaca, added: “You want to continue a feelgood factor and keep progressing as a team.
“It is important you win these games. On the other side, there are a lot of players going to be making their debuts and newcomers involved in the squad, which is going to take an adjustment.
“The other good thing is that there are no points at stake so it’s not the be all and end all if you don’t win the match.
“The most important things sometimes in friendlies are the performance levels and to show that we are still progressing as a team and taking on board what the manager expects.”