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September 2003
Scotland beat the Faeroes, lose to Germany, prepare for Lithuania











one more time, sang The Eagles at Hampden Park during their world tour and Scotland are doing precisely that in their European Championships qualifying matches. Last time here we welcomed our clubs' success thus far in Europe this term and wondered if the national team could do the same. Sadly it wasn't to be but Scotland's performances in the two recent games do give cause for encouragement.

Let's take the Faeroes game first. Yes, it was at times nervous, sure it looked a bit rocky at 1-1, certainly a 3-1 win is no cause for street parties. But let's get things in perspective. Germany struggled to a 2-1 home win over the North Atlantic islanders and four days after our match at Hampden England laboured to a 2-0 win over Liechtenstein in Manchester.

Essentially these matches are like domestic cup-ties between a top division side and a non-league team. The 'little' team come prepared to defend in depth, hope for a hit on the break and that the 'big' side has an off-day. Our 'off-days' came away to the Faeroes and in Lithuania and they may yet cost us dear.

At least the position in Scotland’s group is fairly straightforward. Beat Lithuania at Hampden and we will be in the play-offs unless Iceland win in Germany. And as the Germans still require a point from that match to win the group that remains an unlikely, though not impossible scenario.

Compared to Group Two where qualification is still being contested between four teams, Group Ten where any one of three can still qualify automatically and Group Four where three countries are chasing the play-off spot, our task seems simple. On paper anyway.

For we ignore Lithuania at our peril. Standards have risen in the Baltic States quite considerably since the dissolution of the USSR. Apart from the fact that Lithuania have already beaten us in Vilnius, they also drew away to Germany. Latvia go into their last match holding down a play-off spot. And Estonia not only turn up for matches these days they have the ability to draw away to Croatia and take a point off Bulgaria.

It is not going to be easy but we can take heart from the result against the Faeroes and performance in Dortmund. After a bright opening Scotland were always second best. Some commentators suggested that we were unlucky and that refereeing decisions cost us dear. We cannot agree. The German penalty award was perfectly fair. Stephen Pressley displayed his usual penchant for wrapping himself around attackers and, in truth; we have been lucky not to concede more spot-kicks in recent games. As for the sending-off of Maurice Ross, the Rangers player went in for a tackle with studs showing just minutes after being booked. The only possible outcome was a yellow card and a second yellow means dismissal.

Berti Vogts surprised just about everybody by fielding a front three but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the night was Barry Ferguson’s anonymity. This was the ideal occasion for Bazza to show that he is the player his fans reckon him to be and he flunked it. We can only hope that Ferguson’s move south will energise him the way a similar transfer has turned Neil McCann from a fringe player into Scotland’s star performer. The Southampton winger was easily our best player in both games and his goal against Germany was one to savour.

Much has been made of Christian Dailly’s comments at full-time. For the benefit of those unable to see the game live Dailly was clearly heard to be calling the Germans ‘fucking cheats’ while the BBC was interviewing Vogts.

Fortunately referee Anders Frisk didn’t overhear his comments and we can only hope that the German FA don’t pay too much attention to BBC Scotland as Dailly – our most experienced international – will be a crucial presence for Scotland in our final game and we can ill-afford for him to be suspended.

Defeat but a much-improved performance in Dortmund

It may be tempting fate to look ahead to the play-offs but rumours emanating out of Nyon suggest that the draw might be ‘fixed’ to the advantage of the bigger nations.

For the last tournament in 2000 the play-offs draw was an open affair. Eight names went into the bowl and four pairings came out. This time round UEFA have indicated that teams might be seeded. It’s not hard to see why. With one match to go Holland are definitely in the play-offs and Spain look likely to join them. Either Turkey or England will be involved as well and there is an outside chance that Italy too will fail to qualify automatically.

Let’s be blunt about this. TV money dictates the rules here and there is no way UEFA want to see England, Spain or Holland lose out while allowing Latvia and Slovenia to fight it out for a place in the Finals
. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But that’s how football works these days. It happens in our domestic game in the League Cup so maybe we shouldn’t complain too much if seedings are used.

What it means for Scotland is that should we reach the play-offs then it’s most likely we will face an uphill struggle to get to the Finals. Spain and Holland are currently ranked three and four in the world with Turkey and England at seven and eight. That’s three of the likely seeds accounted for. The fourth would come from whichever of Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Romania or Norway finished second in their group. At least one of those countries must come second and they are listed here in order of FIFA ranking.

Whatever way you look at it, it leaves Scotland with a mountain to climb. Still, a year ago in the Faeroes few would have backed us to still be in with a chance with a game to play. The Lithuania match takes place in the same month as Hampden Park celebrates its centenary.

Let’s hope it’s a birthday to remember.


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