Craig LEVEIN has been buoyed by Darren Fletcher’s surprise return to the fold ahead of Scotland’s penultimate Group I Euro 2012 qualifying clash with Liechtenstein tonight. However, even if the skipper is considered to have sufficiently recovered from tonsillitis to play his part the task ahead is likely to require both patience and fortitude.
Liechtenstein belied their supposed status as minnows 13 months ago at Hampden Park, with Scotland required to score in the seventh minute of injury time to avoid what would have been a crippling draw. Levein has had to re-live this painful night on numerous occasions this week in the run-up to the return match in Vaduz. The manager has even learned to view it as a positive evening, since it gave him a glimpse of what not to do. It also provided evidence of the resourceful nature of his side.
“I don’t know about crazy but it was a frustrating night,” he said yesterday, when asked if it was one of his more interesting experiences in a management career that stretches all the way back to Cowdenbeath. “But we got through it. I’m a great believer in the theory that you have to get through a bit of pain if you want to get anywhere. I feel we are a much better side for it.”
Levein firmly believes Scotland are in a brighter place, even given the familiar agonies experienced during another far-from straightforward campaign. He admits Scotland “got out of jail” against Liechtenstein last September. His side were then placed back in a tight spot after conceding a late, disputed penalty in last month’s 2-2 draw against Czech Republic. Levein has, however, learned a lot from the campaign thus far.
Against Liechtenstein last September he was still fumbling around in the hope of finding a formation which suited Scotland. He had to make brave, unpopular decisions such as replacing James McFadden at half-time in the 2-1 win.
“To be honest, at that time, I didn’t know what the best system was,” he said. “I was still searching for a formation to suit the players that we had. It’s only really since January that I have settled on the system.
“At that time I was still experimenting. But that happens in football – we scored the late goal and we got the points.”
The manager kicked himself for listening to others and being persuaded to play two strikers in the first game at Hampden. Even though victory is imperative tonight, he won’t be make that mistake again. He has settled on a 4-1-4-1 formation, with only the identity of personnel changing. Craig Mickail-Smith looks set to line up in attack this evening at the Rhinepark Stadion after Kenny Miller lost his battle to recover from his groin injury after a light work-out yesterday.
Fletcher, meanwhile, will start in midfield if the Scotland medical staff consider his tonsillitis to be no longer an issue. Should Fletcher’s journey prove to have been in vain then Cardiff City player Don Cowie is likely to step in. Levein has noted the need for an up-tempo start to the game and although the formation is unchanged, the creativity of the players involved emphasises just how much Scotland need victory.
Fletcher was given a gentle work-out last night on his arrival in St Gallen, the town in north-east Switzerland where Scotland are based. They will make the 40-minute bus journey across the border to Vaduz later today having completed a last run-through of set-piece positioning this morning.
The thoroughness which Levein has engaged with the task reflects his belief that Liechtenstein deserve to be treated just as seriously as Lithuania, against who Scotland have regularly experienced trouble in the past.
“They are well organised and they have the advantage of having groups of players who come from the same teams and who play together regularly,” Levein said yesterday. “There’s a kind of glue with that which makes them more difficult to break down. Every time there is an international match they call on the same group of players so they know each other very well.”
“They’ve taken four points from Lithuania - the same as we did - so we won’t take them lightly. We need to play this game with the same tempo that we set against Lithuania and, all being well, take more of our chances when they come.”