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Burley faces burden of restoring Scots' self-belief
* Andy Hunter in Skopje
Scotland brimmed with such self-belief last autumn that they would have backed themselves to beat Brazil, their captain, Stephen McManus, proclaimed yesterday. It illustrates the unfortunate transformation George Burley has overseen since that, when their World Cup campaign opens today, there will be reservations about conquering Macedonia.
Burley has presided over only three friendlies since being installed as Alex McLeish's successor in January, but the downward trajectory of each performance means it is not merely qualifying for South Africa that demands an impressive start on the manager's competitive debut in Skopje. The pluses from an encouraging draw against Croatia in March have been lost to the lame end-of-season defeat to the Czech Republic in Prague and, worse, last month's sterile goalless draw at home to Northern Ireland. It is no time to pass judgement on the new man's international career, of course, but the time to recapture the form and spirit of Scotland's European Championship qualifying campaign has certainly arrived.
"This is where it all begins and we are as ready as we can be," concurred Burley, who has spent eight months, and 18 years in club management, preparing for this day. "We are mentally and physically prepared but now we have to prove it. We've had three games to get a squad together and now this is a big challenge for myself. You are not just the manager of a club - you are manager of a whole country and that does bring more pressure. There is more weight on my shoulders but this is the biggest honour I could have had and I am confident we can do well."
In Burley's defence, his reign has so far been categorised by the mass withdrawals that were synonymous with the Berti Vogts era, the lack of which helped Walter Smith and McLeish take Scotland so close to Euro 2008 at the expense of France. Five players have pulled out of the double-header with Macedonia and Iceland through injury, while two of the finest, Barry Ferguson and Alan Hutton, are not available due to long-term injury. Ferguson, his country's captain, has not played under the new manager yet.
The success of McLeish and Smith, however, means there is an expectation on Burley that was not upon his predecessors, whose natural authority he lacks. Absentees do not come into the equation when Scotland, now ranked 16th in the world, face a Macedonia team 40 places below them in the FIFA list, while the searing afternoon heat of Skopje and a 31-year-old referee, Pavel Kralovec, who was recently banned by the Czech Football Association for ineptitude and is officiating in only his third international qualifier, are now viewed as minor obstacles on the road to South Africa.
"This is not about George Burley. This is about trying to take the country to a World Cup Finals. It's not about me," insisted the manager. "I'm not the most important part of it. I'm just a part of it. I don't win games. I don't lose games. For me, it's about getting a squad together and trying our best to qualify."
Macedonia are unbeaten against Luxembourg, Serbia, Bosnia and Poland in friendlies this year and the goalless draw they staged against England at Old Trafford, and which contributed to Steve McClaren's ultimate failure in qualifying for the European Championships, showed their resilience. They also beat Croatia 2-0 in that qualifying campaign, albeit hours after Slaven Bilic's team had discovered they had reached Euro 2008 courtesy of Russia's defeat in Israel.
One win in Skopje, however, and Scotland, who meet Iceland on Wednesday, will have their exuberance back. As McManus, elevated to captain in Ferguson's absence, said: "As a nation we took a lot from the last campaign. If we had played Brazil we would have fancied ourselves to play against them. Everyone was on a high and that was the sort of belief we had, but this is going to be a really hard game and we'll do well to get anything out of it."
Macedonia (4-3-3) Milosevski; Sedloski, Mitreski, Noveski, Lazarevski; Sumulikoski, Grozdanovski, Petrov; Maznov, Pandev, Naumoski. Substitutes from Popov, Tasevski, Pacovski, Polozani, Grncarov, Stojkov, Ristic, Sakiri.
Scotland (4-4-2): Gordon; Alexander, McManus, Caldwell, Naysmith; Brown, Fletcher, Hartley, Robson; Miller, McFadden.
Referee Pavel Kralovec (Cz).
Taken from the Guardian/Observer