Gordon Strachan has praised Hearts captain Christophe Berra for the manner in which he has re-established himself in the centre of Scotland’s defence.
The 32-year-old was a regular under previous national team manager Craig Levein – now, of course, his boss at Tynecastle – but found himself playing back-up to the likes of Russell Martin and Grant Hanley for much of Strachan’s reign.
However, Berra has started three of Scotland’s last four World Cup qualifiers and has formed a fruitful partnership with fellow left-footer Charlie Mulgrew in the two most recent matches, against England and Lithuania.
Strachan was particularly impressed with his contribution to Friday’s 3-0 victory in Vilnius and is set to hand the Hearts man a 38th cap in this evening’s must-win match against Malta at Hampden.
“I thought Christophe was excellent on Friday,” he said. “He’s not the most spectacular of players but he is always willing and I thought he did really well. He sums up the spirit in the squad. When he is called upon he is prepared and ready for it.
“When we were on the bus coming back from the match the other night we were talking about the football going forward. But I said: ‘By the way, Berra and Charlie played well. Berra’s running into the corners was strong. Any ball that went forward was dealt with. People tend to forget how important it is to win headers. When he is up there and he is knocking it back there is nothing getting flicked on that could give us a problem. Charlie was good on the ball as well. I thought they were good.”
Scotland’s entire back five on Friday - goalkeeper Craig Gordon plus Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson, Berra and Mulgrew - were left-footed. Strachan has no concerns with this state affairs, although he acknowledges it represents a change from when he used to play. “Someone mentioned we’d five left-footed players in the defence,” he said. “Years ago you never had any left-footers. Danny McGrain played left-back. Sandy Jardine played on the right and you had Stuart Kennedy. It’s amazing how it shifts around. I’m quite comfortable with two left-sided centre-backs, I’ve got to be. Grant Hanley likes being on the left. Liam Cooper at Leeds is left-sided and he’s been doing well. That’s maybe why he’s not here. When you look at left-backs, there’s also Craig Forsyth and Lee Wallace, who was terrific for us in the England away game. It’s strange the way it’s worked out.”
The current left-heavy set-up is beginning to bear fruit, with Scotland building up a belated head of steam in their bid to make it to the World Cup in Russia next summer. Seven points from their last three games have created an improbably promising situation where, unless Slovakia win away to England tonight, Strachan’s resurgent team know that they will finish second in Group F if they win their three games - at home to Malta and Slovakia, and away to Slovenia.
All going to plan, Scotland will hope to move within a point of Slovakia this evening. Strachan is taking nothing for granted, however, against a Maltese side who have proved stuffy opponents since losing 5-1 to the Scots in Valletta a year ago. “Listen they know where to pack it. Defensively the manager has done a great job with them. Look at Lithuania - I think they scored in the 78th minute against them from a corner. England scored one and it was close to the 90th minute when they scored the next three on Friday. Take our five-goal result away and it’s all 2-1s and 1-0s. It takes a long time to break them down. It really is hard work. You’ve got to have possession against them, but you have also got to move without the ball.”
Strachan’s squad has evolved throughout this campaign to the extent that only one player – Robertson – started both games against Lithuania 11 months apart. The manager is encouraged by the way his new-look, Celtic-influenced team is taking shape. Asked if he can see the nucleus of a good team for the next couple of campaigns forming, he said: “Yeah, I can. That cameraderie they have together is wonderful, they trust each other with the ball. They bring everybody into their circle, they don’t keep anybody out of it.
“I get excitement in all different ways, not just beating teams. I get excited by their bravery on the ball, their willingness to run without it. I think to make us even better we need to get stronger in certain areas. That’s up to the youth team football and whatever we are, the 19 and 20-years-olds. It’s unfortunate we are stronger in certain areas and not others.”
Strachan is pleased with the depth of options available to him in several positions. The manager said that the likes of Matt Ritchie, Ryan Fraser and James Morrison could all have started on Friday and it wouldn’t have made Scotland any weaker. “If any member of that group were playing on Friday night I don’t think it would have made any difference,” he said. “I went to see my mother the other day. She was getting worktops for her kitchen. She had a choice of 50. I said: ‘Mum! You’ve got 20 there that will just be the same! Just pick any of those 20! They all look the same!’ It was the same with our players in certain areas. There are maybe four in one position you could play, two in another and three in another. In some areas it’s not as easy. We have pace from all areas. I think the pace that we have, if you look at the Brazils and Englands and what have you, they can match it. They have all got that, with strength as well.”
Strachan has five players who would miss the potentially pivotal match against Slovakia next month if they get booked tonight. Grant Hanley, James McArthur, Mulgrew, Leigh Griffiths and Scott Brown are all walking a tightrope, and Strachan has urged them all to make sure they avoid picking up unnecessary cautions this evening. “Play the game, but just don’t do silly things,” he said. “We advised these guys the other night, yes, get angry, but don’t kick the ball away or shout at the referee.
“If you get booked by making a tackle that’s going to help us, if you make a mistake, then there is nothing we can do about that. Stand up and be counted. Don’t be bullied by anyone for the sake of not getting that yellow card. In certain areas we have to be really worried about someone getting a yellow card and in other areas it’s okay because we are well covered there. Again that’s getting back to the strong areas and not so strong areas.”
Asked if was tempted to leave out Brown, Griffiths, McArthur or Mulgrew – all of whom started on Friday – against Malta, Strachan replied: “No, this has to be done. You have to get a win.”