TAKE IT TO THE
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 Scotlands 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 Fergusons 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 Fergusons
move south will energise him the way a similar transfer has turned
Neil McCann from a fringe player into Scotlands 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 Daillys 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 didnt overhear his
comments and we can only hope that the German FA dont 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. Its
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
Lets 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. Its not fair. Its not right. But
thats how football works these days. It happens in our domestic
game in the League Cup so maybe we shouldnt complain too much
if seedings are used.
What it means for Scotland is that should we reach the play-offs
then its 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. Thats
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
Lets hope its a birthday to remember.