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8 of 009

Promising cast but final script so familiar

Richard Wilson

9 Oct 2011

Drenched and weary, Scotland held on to a result that was both heartening and troubling.

There was enough deftness of touch, movement and style for this to be a display that augured well for Craig Levein’s side; yet when it was over, and the players wore that look of drained satisfaction, the nagging sense was that what lies in wait now is another last-gasp failure.

Can it be any other way against Spain on Tuesday night? Even in defeat Scotland can remain one point ahead of the Czech Republic in second place in Group I and so reach the play-offs, but only if Michal Bilek’s side also lose to Lithuania.

Scotland are in control of their destiny, in a sense, but it demands that they take command of the game in Alicante. It will be an unnerving task against the world and European champions, but that is not the source of any misgivings. What Scotland take into the final round of Euro 2012 qualifying fixtures is a history of failure, a growing sense of detachment from the sharp end of international football. It was present even in Vaduz, since Scotland had needed a goal in the seventh and last minute of injury time to defeat Lichtenstein 2-1 at Hampden last year.

It was there, too, in the likes of Gary Caldwell, who was playing in his fifth qualifying tournament and had come to know only despair in all of them. This was a night when Scotland had to face down their historic demons – and what it delivered was a sense of promise.

This was a night when Scotland had to face down their demons

Levein tends to overstate the progress made in recent months, his bullish optimism suggesting the national team has entered a new age of accomplishment. There are still too many flaws for that to stand scrutiny – particularly in defence where Christophe Berra performs as though always on the edge of calamity – but what the team displayed most was an air of freedom.

Players such as Phil Bardsley, Charlie Adam, Barry Bannan, James Morrison, Steven Naismith and Craig Mackail-Smith are not burdened by past failures. In their lightness of mood and spirit, they have become fearless, and that is enough to overcome any grim realism among their team-mates.

In the way Scotland passed the ball, switching it from flank to flank and pushing high up the field, this was a display that told of the players’ certainty in each other and the manager’s approach.

The squad might have become disillusioned in the early months of Levein’s management as he experimented and assessed – and even attempted a 4-6-0 formation in Czech Republic – but in Vaduz they were composed and ambitious.

Adam controlled the game’s tempo, Bannan was capable of moments of guile, Darren Fletcher – so recently ill and doubtful – played with authority, and Craig Mackail-Smith led the line with a committed intent. Alan Hutton and Bardsley, the two full-backs, pushed forward to offer width as Naismith and Bannan, the two wide midfielders, cut infield to join the attack or the build-up play. Scotland hoarded possession, but remained calm as opportunities were spurned.

Naismith cursed when he rounded Peter Jehle, the Liechtenstein goalkeeper, only to shoot into the side-netting, but once Mackail-Smith scored with a header that exposed the fragility at the heart of the home side’s defence, Scotland could relax.

What epitomised this display? Mackail-Smith’s energy and constant movement on the shoulders of the defenders certainly, but also the way Adam demanded to be the central figure in midfield and was, deep into the second-half, still tracking back to rob Liechtenstein players of possession.

Allan McGregor performed diligently, Naismith was his usual spiky, dynamic self, and there is an understanding that Scotland – with their 4-1-4-1 formation and settled personnel – can be relied upon. They are short of goalscoring prowess, and options at centre-back, but the way that they commanded this awkward tie against Liechtenstein could be seen as a form of progress.

It is only the looming presence of Spain that causes anxiety, but last night Scotland delivered a performance of hope.

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