Craig LEVEIN isn’t disheartened in the slightest. The rest of us are going to take a whole lot more convincing.
Two games into the World Cup qualifying campaign, both of them at home, and already the road to Rio has taken on the appearance of a cul-de-sac as far as Scotland are concerned.
On the evidence of the past few days, Levein’s players will be staying at home in two years’ time, joining the rest of us watching football’s greatest competition from afar on television.
Levein, as he has to, continues to talk up his side’s chances, taking a glass half-full approach to the draws against Serbia and now Macedonia by highlighting the fact that Scotland today sit just two points off top place in Group A.
He is, of course, entirely correct as he is in stating there are 24 more points to be played for before any of the six countries involved can have their chances of being in Brazil in 2014 entirely written off. Arithmetically it is so. But what Levein didn’t say is that five of the eight remaining matches are now away from home, two of them against group favourites Belgium and Croatia – both of whom have still to visit Hampden – and the two nations against whom his side have just drawn which won’t give the Tartan Army much comfort.
Points, as Levein claims, will still be dropped all round, but few will today believe the Scots will lose fewer than anyone else. Don’t forget Macedonia arrived on these shores 50 places below us in the FIFA rankings, a side which had won only once in seven away games and suffered defeats in both Luxembourg and Armenia.
And yet they left for home disappointed, as coach Cedomic Janevski revealed, with only one point when all three could quite easily have been taken. Admitting he’d happily have settled for a draw before kick-off, Janevski highlighted the fact Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor had been named man-of-the-match as proof of that claim. He said: “That means my players created a lot of good opportunities to score. I am satisfied with the performance, but not the result.”
Indeed, had it not been for McGregor, even Levein might today have been struggling to put any positive spin at all on Scotland’s stuttering start in their bid to qualify for their first major tournament since 1998, the memories of the World Cup in France that year fading with each passing campaign.
Twice the goalkeeper pulled off superb saves, denying Agim Ibraimi in the first half with the Macedonians already ahead thanks to Nikolche Noveski’s 11th-minute strike. Noveski looked a good yard offside as he stretched to meet Ivan Trichkovski’s low cross but the flag stayed down, the more pertinent question being as to why the Scots’ defence fell asleep as their visitors worked a short corner.
Minutes earlier, McGregor might have conceded a penalty as he sneakily lifted his boot into Mirko Ivanovski having beaten the forward to a through ball but, having made amends with that save from Ibraimi, he did something similar 18 minutes from time, using his legs to knock Ivanovski’s low shot off target.
Macedonia had been widely regarded as being unlucky to lose against Croatia in Zagreb in their opening match on Friday night, Levein among those who took that view although the Scotland manager insisted beforehand they weren’t in the same class as Serbia.
And the early moments of last night showed why, Janevski’s side, orchestrated by Napoli’s Goran Pandev, making all the early running with their speed of thought and movement allied to not a little technical skill, so much so that it took only 18 minutes for the boos to begin ringing around Hampden, the Tartan Army clearly anxious and perturbed by what they were seeing.
All Scotland had to offer in return was a Shaun Maloney free-kick which goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov punched away before Levein’s side got a lucky break, Vanche Shikov thrusting out his left boot in a bid to cut out James Morrison’s through ball only to deflect it into the path of Jamie Mackie who left Kenny Miller with a simple tap-in.
It was a lifeline which should have seen Scotland kick on after half-time but they didn’t do so even after the introduction of goals sensation Jordan Rhodes, the Blackburn Rovers kid stripping for action only a few minutes after the crowd began chanting his name.
He almost made an instant impact, throwing himself at Charlie Adam’s near-post cross only to nod the ball inches wide and then just missing a tempting ball from James Forrest but, even so, it was the Macedonians who carried the greater threat.
Paradoxically, Levein revealed he felt Scotland had played into Macedonia’s hands by playing so many attack-minded players with only Gary Caldwell deployed in a holding role in the middle of the park where Scotland continued to suffer from the absence of Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and James McArthur, the onus, of course, having been on his side, being at home, to take the initiative rather than sit in and hit on the counter as they may well attempt in the forthcoming away matches against Wales and Belgium.
Levein said: “I think we struggled a bit to get really going. The second half was better but it was a struggle for us. I’d have loved to have had all six points or even four, but that’s football.
“We were up against a decent side and we maybe left ourselves a bit vulnerable on the counter-attack.
“Losing the first goal puts us on the back foot but, credit to the players, they kept going, tried their hardest and are disappointed we did not take any more than one point.”
Boos rang round Hampden at half-time and again on the final whistle, an indication the fans’ patience is being tested to breaking point, but Levein insisted he can handle that. He said: “I understand their frustration but this game is about taking knocks and bouncing back and that’s what we will do.
“I am not downhearted in the slightest. We can play better and will do in our next match. I said at the start of this competition that everybody will take points off each other. We are still hanging in there.”
The question on many fans’ lips today, though, is for how much longer.
Levein, who has talked long and hard about the progression he says has been made since he became manager, must realise that as much as that might be true, there is only one measure which counts and that is results.