Wednesday 22 November 2017

Levein has no defence for Scots' lack of attack

Midfield wall will not stop world champions Spain on Tuesday, writes Ewan Murray

The good news for those who control the purse strings at the Scottish FA is that Hampden Park had sold out for Tuesday's visit of Spain long before a ball was kicked in Prague on Friday night. Only the rare opportunity to watch the world champions in Glasgow will prevent a refund rush over the next 48 hours.

Even the foot soldiers of the Tartan Army, fuelled by the dangerous concoction of optimism and alcohol, arrived home from their latest foreign sojourn in tetchy mood.

If sufficient damage was done to Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign -- and it was -- by the 1-0 loss to the Czech Republic, even further harm was bestowed on the country's fading football reputation. Bluntly, the outside world will wonder what on earth things have come to when Craig Levein feels compelled to send out a team for a vital game that included not a single player deployed as a striker.

"That is easy to say in hindsight," said the Scotland captain Darren Fletcher. "Games are always easier in hindsight, when you haven't won. We arrived with a game plan to frustrate them. If we had come away with a 0-0 or nicked a goal it would have been different but we lost a goal from a set piece and every one is critical. That's football. When you don't win games you get criticised, when you win games it doesn't matter how you play."

That may be true but in his quiet moments Fletcher is entitled to wonder what on earth he is part of.

On Friday evening, the Manchester United player found a wall of five fellow midfielders alongside him, with nobody in a more advanced position to collect a pass. Even though there is no Wayne Rooney equivalent at Levein's disposal, the lack of an out ball for Scotland's midfielders left them embarrassingly bereft of attacking impetus. "Obviously you want a better performance and a better result but the players followed the instructions," said Fletcher. "We have got to pick ourselves up and prepare properly for Spain now."

Levein has never reacted well to criticism -- as if anybody does -- but he will take solace that Spain arrive so quickly after the Czech affair. The statistics do not look clever; Scotland have shipped five points in their three opening group matches, with the only victory arriving courtesy of a 97th-minute goal against Liechtenstein.

The build-up to Friday's game was overshadowed by Levein's anger with the media, after details of his starting XI had appeared on Wednesday, with the manager unable to stick two fingers up at those who questioned the dropping of Kenny Miller thereafter. Miller could have been forgiven an impudent response when the Scotland manager asked him to rescue the game with 14 minutes left to play.

The Rangers striker is almost certain to be handed a more prominent role against Spain. The World Cup winners' ability to pass the ball at ease in defence means it would be outright folly to persist with the 4-2-4-0 strategy so controversially used by Levein in an attempt to combat the Czech Republic.

Miller aside, Scotland's other hope comes from the notion that the national team raises its game when facing high-ranking teams. There were back-to-back wins over France but key qualifying matches elsewhere in the Euro 2008 campaign resulted in defeats. The Scots' attempts to reach the World Cup in South Africa were undermined by two losses to Holland.

Yet Fletcher batted away the suggestion that Tuesday should be treated simply as a bonus game. "It isn't at all, no. I think everyone always thinks that but we have proved things in the past, look at the results we had against France.

"Don't get me wrong, we are playing against arguably the best team in the world and one of the best teams we will have played in a long time but no game is a given. We will go out there trying to get a result from this match and approach it in a positive way. Nobody expects us to get anything but we will be going into the game looking to get something. Spain are going to come and have a lot of possession but hopefully there is an opportunity to take the game to them, with the crowd behind us."

Fletcher's words hint at a desire to take on a more adventurous approach. You are left to wonder if he has passed such sentiment on to his manager.


Sunday Independent

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