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Scotland's win over Northern Ireland strengthens Craig Levein's claims

Craig Levein has said his Scotland side have creative options and they proved it with the best Nations Cup showing of the week

There is always a danger of placing too much stock on evidence from friendlies. In the case of Scotland, though, glimmers of hope have been so rare that every shoot of recovery is gleefully received. The Scots were the clear winners from the first round of Carling Nations Cup fixtures, after dismantling Northern Ireland in a fashion that could have produced more than a 3-0 victory.

Northern Ireland's extenuating circumstance is clear: they were woefully short of first-choice players, with those left in Nigel Worthington's team not much better than a lower-grade Scottish Premier League select. Worthington bemoaned the absence of experienced men in his post-match interviews.

It is, in fact, entirely possible that the lengthy absentee list said something about the Northern Ireland manager's own levels of support from within the squad. That sense can only have intensified with the decision of the Leeds loanee George McCartney to take the – albeit ludicrous – step of asking not to be picked for future Northern Ireland games for the second time in his career. If Worthington, or any of his successors, return cap in hand to the defender then something is very wrong.

One glimpse at the Scotland line-up showed seven players from the English Premier League; there would have been something amiss if that team had not beaten the Northern Irish. Nonetheless, Scotland have toiled badly in such matches in the recent past – Liechtenstein, anyone? – whereas on this occasion they displayed vim, hunger and a terrific work ethic. Craig Levein finally had evidence to back up his consistent claim that this squad is filled with creative options.

Yes, the Scots rallied superbly in pushing Spain at Hampden Park under Levein's guidance, but that was almost typical. The carving open of Northern Ireland's defence, time after time, made this easily the finest showing of his tenure.

The Republic of Ireland beat an insipid Wales team by the same scoreline 24 hours earlier. The Welsh, though, had little hope of marking Gary Speed's move into the international dugout with a positive result given the absence of Messrs Bale, Bellamy and Ramsey. Ireland were competent more than swaggering, in what was not much of a game.

Speed merely suffered the same fate as too many of his predecessors, with a Wales team painfully unable to muster a response to losing the first goal of a game. His chances can only improve with the return of three such influential players when England arrive in Cardiff for a Euro 2012 qualifier next month. The replacing of clear psychological frailty, if not an acceptance of defeat, will prove an even tougher test for them than Fabio Capello's men will for the 41-year-old rookie manager.

As the midweek tournament wore on, the significance of one player who did not even feature seemed to increase. James McCarthy's failure to turn out in an Ireland shirt against Wales merely increased speculation that the Wigan Athletic player may be having second thoughts about his choice of national team. McCarthy, born in Scotland, will soon have a decision to make over where his international future lies, with Levein hovering in the background. Irish suspicion over the 20-year-old's plans has been rife in recent days; Levein has made it perfectly plain that his job is to put as strong a team on the pitch as possible, meaning McCarthy would be accepted by the Scotland manager. It still seems a long-shot that McCarthy will turn his back on Giovanni Trapattoni after playing one friendly for the Irish – although the Ireland manager has muddied the waters with riddle-like explanations of the situation – but if he does, stand back and admire the furore.

Debate continues to rage over the merits of the Nations Cup as a tournament. There were obvious benefits for Levein and Trapattoni, with Worthington able to blood some young players and Speed handed an instant overview of what is required. Those football validities, though, will be offset against the value of the competition as a commercial enterprise.

One thing is clear; a vast increase on the attendances for this week's games will be required when the four nations return to Dublin in May. Larger numbers should be forthcoming; Ireland play Northern Ireland, the weather will be warmer, Scotland have a chance of actually winning something and people usually have more money in their pockets in May than they do in early February. England, with a view to resurrecting the Home International Championship for 2013, will be among those looking on closely.

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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