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Stephen Halliday: Levein�s cry of progress bears little hard evidence

PROGRESS, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “development towards an improved or more advanced condition”. According to Craig Levein, it is what Scotland have achieved under his guidance during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

But this morning, Scotland find themselves in a place which looks and feels depressingly familiar. Third place in Group I, with just three wins from the eight matches played, can hardly be regarded as firm evidence of the kind of improvement and advancement suggested by the manager.

George Burley also oversaw three victories from eight games during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign as Scotland limped to a third place finish in their group behind Netherlands and Norway. In trailing behind Spain and the Czech Republic this time around, albeit with a point more than two years ago, Levein can scarcely be said to have done significantly better than his predecessor.

Like Burley, he went into the last match of the campaign hoping for an unlikely victory against the top seeded nation in the group to salvage a place in the play-offs. Last night’s 3-1 defeat in Spain was no less surprising and no more deserving of criticism than the 1-0 Hampden loss suffered against the Dutch.

Scotland were predictably outclassed by the world champions who have dissected the defences of far better teams in the manner they did with David Silva’s superbly struck double and David Villa’s equally deadly finish.

But although it took until the finale of Group I for Czech Republic to confirm their presence in tomorrow’s play-off draw in Krakow at Scotland’s expense, the most telling damage was sustained at the outset. In dropping five points from their first three games, Scotland were left playing a game of catch-up which was always likely to prove beyond them.

Levein’s assertion that he “didn’t know the players” at his disposal well enough, or what system to deploy them in, during those opening assignments is more than a little bewildering. One of his staunchest defenders in the media even offered the curious view recently that had the SFA dispensed with Burley’s services sooner, rather than allowing him to oversee the friendly defeats against Japan and Wales in autumn 2009, then Levein would have been better able to lay the foundations for a successful Euro 2012 campaign.

But Levein, appointed on 23 December 2009, had more than eight months to prepare for the task ahead. Notwithstanding his own decision to play just two friendly matches in that time, the 1-0 defeat of the Czechs at Hampden in March 2010 and the somewhat shambolic 3-0 defeat in Sweden five months later, it is difficult to credit he was so uncertain of his squad’s capabilities when Group I got underway.

It was not, after all, as if he radically reshaped the pool of players used by Burley in the previous qualification campaign. Seven of Levein’s starting line-up in Alicante last night were all regulars under his predecessor – Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Gary Caldwell, Christophe Berra, Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and Steven Naismith. But for injury, two more of Burley’s mainstays, Scott Brown and Kenny Miller, would also have been named by Levein against Spain.

The qualities of all of those players, their strengths and weaknesses, have surely been apparent to anyone involved in coaching or management at the higher echelons of Scottish football for several years now.

It is why Levein’s lack of boldness at the start of the Group I journey constitutes such a lingering stain on his tenure. The insipid 0-0 draw against Lithuania in Kaunas was the first evidence of the lack of conviction which underpinned his almost universally derided decision to deploy the cringeworthy 4-6-0 formation in Prague the following month.

The powerful sense that the 1-0 defeat against a demonstrably mediocre Czech side would haunt the Scots has proved correct. Levein, who remains defiant in his belief the tactics used in Prague were justifiable, will instead point to last month’s 2-2 draw at home to the Czechs as the pivotal stage of the campaign.

Jan Rezek’s double for Michal Bilek’s side in their 4-1 win against Lithuania in Kaunas last night would only stoke the sense of injustice burning within Levein who felt the striker should have been serving a suspension for his act of simulation which earned the penalty at Hampden which denied Scotland victory.

Dutch referee Kevin Blom, who also refused Scotland a stoppage time spot-kick in similar circumstances when Christophe Berra tumbled theatrically at the other end, is another convenient scapegoat which it comes to apportioning blame for failure to progress to next summer’s finals in Poland and Ukraine.

When the action kicks off in Warsaw on 8 June, Scotland will be on the outside looking in for a seventh successive major finals. While many Tartan Army foot soldiers will still be cursing Rezek and Blom, there is an equally sizeable contingent who consider Levein just as culpable for the national team’s latest disappointment.

The trio of wins yielded from his first campaign were all achieved by a single goal margin. Two of them were against tiny Liechtenstein, the first in excruciating fashion at Hampden with a 97th minute winner; the other at home to a low-grade Lithuania.

Ahead of a 2014 World Cup qualifying group which sees Scotland pitted against Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales, Levein’s definition of progress, which he described as “enormous improvement” last night, is not easy to share.

Taken from the Scotsman

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