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Scotland's Craig Levein keen to avoid unwanted hat-trick in Cardiff

Wales have finished off two recent Scotland managers and the under-fire Craig Levein is due in their capital next month

There is still a month to go before Wales meet Scotland in Cardiff but already the fixture has a grisly backdrop. A 6-1 World Cup qualifying defeat for Wales against Serbia on Tuesday was not sufficient to improve the angry mood at Hampden Park, but it may have offered Craig Levein a shred of much-needed hope. Two of the Scotland manager's predecessors, Berti Vogts and George Burley, famously came unstuck in the Welsh capital.

Levein is already battling the theory that his Scotland tenure is doomed. For a manager who talks up his team's abilities and strengths, the statistics make grim reading. The manager has firm support within the Scottish FA but those in positions of power will already be aware of Gordon Strachan's availability, and calls for the former Celtic manager to be handed a first international role.

Levein has not captured the imagination of the public and, contrary to his own idea, does not retain their full backing. An attendance of 32,430 at Hampden for the draw against Macedonia is hardly disastrous but it was the lowest at the venue for a qualifier since 2001.

Scotland have opened their World Cup group with two home draws and a not insignificant section of supporters have made their discontent perfectly plain. In both those matches, the Hampden atmosphere has been far from its rousing best. Fans have been at their most vociferous when making their displeasure plain. And Macedonia were genuinely unfortunate not to leave with three points, causing the Scots further embarrassment than is already the case.

It would be short-sighted, of course, to lay blame for the failings of Scotland's national game solely at the feet of Levein. Not since 1998 has the country played at a major tournament due to a decline that had set in years earlier, caused by negligence when the going was good.

When more than one manager cannot reverse that trend, the evidence points to wider problems. Levein has proven himself to be a capable, passionate coach with an understanding of Scottish football. Yet he is continually being undone by a combination of problems. Scotland do not have players operating at the very top level, but the national team is actually performing beneath the sum of its constituent parts. For any manager, that spells trouble.

Levein is consistently gushing about his players' talent, without their providing on-field proof of his point. Scotland's three competitive wins under his guidance have come against Liechtenstein, twice, and Lithuania. Scotland still have no consistently recognised back four and persist with Kenny Miller as a lone striker, despite the 32-year-old's best days appearing firmly behind him. The midfield created precious little against a Macedonia side ranked 97th in the world. Afterwards, the goalkeeper Allan McGregor, the team's stand-out player, damningly claimed his team lacked "belief".

Serbia were competent enough when facing Scotland, without any suggestion they would thrash the Welsh by five clear goals. Chris Coleman therefore presided over Wales's biggest defeat in almost 16 years, with little consolation attached to a first goal scored by the national side since he took over. Coleman is still toiling to continue the improvement that was apparent under his predecessor, the late Gary Speed, even if, in fairness, there was a reasonable performance against Belgium on Friday that was undone by the controversial dismissal of James Collins.

Unlike Levein, the Wales manager has castigated his team, labelling the showing in Serbia as "criminal" and an "embarrassment". It was a fourth defeat in a row since he took charge. While Coleman has some high-profile young talent to call upon, such as Gareth Bale, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, there is a notable lack of depth and an absence from contesting the World Cup finals that sits at 54 years. Unlike the Scots, those in Wales are not typically hurt by hope.

In completing a Tuesday of woe for the home nations, Michael O'Neill saw Northern Ireland held to a home draw by Luxembourg. In his defence, there has never seemed any prospect of them emerging from a group that also includes Portugal and Russia. Nonetheless, that matter and his country's lack of resources merely raise the question as to why the former Shamrock Rovers manager was not willing to continue a promising club management career.

O'Neill, at least, knows his job is under no immediate threat. Levein and Coleman would be unwise to rest quite so easy, as a frosty buildup to Cardiff will illustrate.

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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