After the emotional roller-coaster of their last outing, Gordon Strachan is tasked with picking up his players in a stadium resembling a municipal sports facility.
The agonising saga of Scotland’s World Cup qualifying adventures continues. We left off in June with a full house, mercifully controlled tribal warfare and a riveting game that re-ignited Hampden’s old qualities. Many have yet to recover from the gut-wrenching delirium. But the worth of that 2-2 draw with England might become a little clearer following this evening’s clash with Lithuania, which is being held in a considerably more down-home setting to a bouncing, writhing Hampden.
Talk about extremes. The LFF stadium in Vilnius will be full. But the bleachers on two sides where Scotland fans will make up around three quarters of the 5000 crowd lie open to the elements – and it got very cold here last night, with tonight’s game kicking off at 9.45pm local time.
A small main stand runs down one length of the pitch while a fence – actually the perimeter of another park – stands behind one goal. Helpful if Leigh Griffiths or anyone else hasn’t got their eye in. Many fans present will have played at more well-appointed five-a-side complexes.
The setting is as low key as Scotland have perhaps ever tasted, including trips to the Faroe Isles. It’s definitely the first time they have played a competitive game on a synthetic surface.
For this reason at least, tonight is guaranteed to be historic. Scotland will strive to ensure the date avoids going into the annals for ignominious reasons.
It’s exactly the sort of place where Scotland have come unstuck in the past. But Strachan claimed they aren’t the only ones to feel trepidation before such clashes, when everything points to the visitors being heavy favourites.
“People keep saying that about Scotland,” he said. “But look around at all the nations around the world, everybody has slip-ups everywhere. It’s not a unique thing with us.
“If you go to England they’ll say the same thing about how they slip up against the wee teams. Wales will say the same.
(But) this is a wee bit different from playing Germany in Dortmund that’s for sure.”
It’s certainly far removed from the Hampden of that recent June evening, when Harry Kane broke Scottish hearts and sent Scotland spinning into a qualifying hinterland. Qualification remains achievable. But it’s merely a whisper of a possibility.
Moscow lies just 500 miles to the east of Vilnius, where Scotland have never won – or lost (their only visit here was a 0-0 draw under Craig Brown in 1998). The Russian enclave of Kalingrad Oblast is even closer and has been described by wary Lithuanians as just a “swift tank ride away”. The fear is Strachan and his players are currently as close as they will ever get to next summer’s finals.
Scotland have never won four World Cup qualifiers in a row before.
But despite Strachan’s contention that a draw would not prove fatal, this is what’s generally felt is the prescription for getting to Russia next summer – four wins, starting tonight.
The backdrop to the game means nothing can be taken for granted. Scotland’s aforementioned record in Lithuania is average at best – two draws, a defeat and a solitary win, clinched under Walter Smith in Kaunas 11 years ago.
Never opposition to be taken lightly, Lithuania are on an upswing. In their last four games they have secured home and away draws against Slovenia while also holding Scotland at Hampden in a game they should have won. No wonder head coach Edgaras Jankauskas spoke with a degree of confidence yesterday.
Then there’s the question of the pitch on which Scotland trained last night.
Laid out in the late evening sunshine yesterday the stretch of turf seemed less than threatening to Scotland’s prospects. Members of the ground staff were busy watering the pitch before and after Lithuania trained. So it looked slick by the time Scotland set foot on it at 8pm local time to play a short game between themselves.
The manager has sought to play down fears the underfoot conditions will be a factor in the outcome. He referenced a game against Serbia four years ago that was played on a muddy pitch which he felt was far more damaging to his player’s chances of winning.
“These days the pitches are usually so good,” he said. “Or it goes to an Astroturf – where you’re not up to your neck in mud like we were in the old days. That’s why you don’t get the shocks in the FA Cup these days because the surfaces are a lot better.
“So if you ask me whether I’d like to play out there or the pitch we had in Serbia then I’d say I’d prefer the one out there.”
But Strachan did accept fate could well play a significant part tonight no matter how detailed Scotland’s preparations – the players have been training on a pitch near their Mar Hall base judged to be the nearest in quality to the synthetic turf in Vilnius.
“You never know what’s going to help tomorrow,” he said. “What helped us against England? It was Griff (Leigh Griffiths) battering in two wonderful free-kicks.
“I never planned that! I never sat him down and said ‘by the way Griff we’re in trouble could you knock two balls in the back of the net’. It’s all about players.”
But he knows by now how it goes. If Scotland fail to secure three points it will be all about him, again.