Scotland’s 3-0 humbling at the hands of Sweden on Wednesday night served as a reminder of the task ahead if they are to qualify for their first major tournament since France 1998.
Craig Levein may take cold comfort from the fact that it was only a “meaningless friendly” but the ease in which his defence was ripped apart should be a worry.
A largely inexperienced back four of Broadfoot Kenneth, Berra, Wallace found it difficult to match the mobility of Sweden and their returning hero Zlatan Ibrahimovich. The Barcelona striker slotted home the opener in 3 minutes, Emir Bajrami doubled the lead before half time and Ola Toivonen ended the game in 55 minutes. Indeed if Alan McGregor had not been in such good form the result could have been far, far worse.
McGregor against Sweden
In fairness Levein had to contend with usual spate of call-offs before the match but a core his team remained and on first impressions little has changed from the doomed World Cup qualifying campaign.
With the likes of Stephen Fletcher (Wolves), Kenny Miller (Rangers), Kris Boyd (Middlesborough) and James McFadden (Birmingham City) Scotland should at least compete in the forward areas but in defence there is lack of experience and communication.
Gary Caldwell (Wigan) should return heart of defence for the coming Euro Qualifying campaign. His partner should be a resurgent Andy Webster (Rangers) giving us a fairly solid defensive bedrock. The flanks can be covered by a combination of Alan Hutton (Tottenham), Christophe Berra (Wolves), Steven Whittaker (Rangers) or Lee Wallace (Hearts) providing a competent if not impressive back four. By the time the real meaningful games start in 3 weeks these players should of least got rid of any pre-season ring rust.
Behind the defence Scotland have two European class Goalkeepers in Craig Gordon and Alan McGregor. Gordon is the automatic number one choice but injuries have severely hampered his playing time for both club and country. If McGregor continues to perform alike in Stockholm the Sunderland keeper may find it difficult dislodge his Rangers counterpart upon return to fitness.
In midfield Scotland can boast of a real World class player in Captain Darren Fletcher. In recent seasons Fletcher has transformed himself from an Old Trafford bit-part substitute into an Alex Ferguson automatic pick. His combative and physical style coupled with a degree of skill and elegance has garnered much praise south of the border. Unfortunately he has rarely matched this when playing for Scotland but the coming campaign should give him the opportunity to impress.
Relative experience in midfield should come with Scott Brown (Celtic), Paul Hartley (Aberdeen), Lee McCulloch (Rangers) and Barry Robson (Middlesborough) although none have yet to breach the 30 cap mark. This quartet have impressed for their league teams in spells but national form has been mercurial at best. The real hope of success may come in newcomers Charlie Adam (Blackpool) and Graeme Dorrans (West Brom) who have just had excellent seasons in the Championship and are entering into their maiden Premier League campaigns. Together with Kevin Thomson (Middlesborough) Scotland may at last have the quality and ingenuity they have lacked for so long.
So barring injuries Scotland have a team which should at least compete at a European Championship level. The majority of the players have had Champions League or Premier League experience and with the proper leadership and management they could be molded into fairly impressive unit. However the defence is key. Scotland must first be a team that is hard to break down which was the first task completed by previous managers Walter Smith and Alex McLeish. It would be foolish to have any free-flowing attacking pretensions like favoured by Vogts or Burley.
On paper the task ahead could hardly be worse.
Group I includes Spain (current World Cup and European Championship holders) but it would be foolhardy to expect to compete with Iberian masters. Any points gained from the two matches would be a bonus if not a miracle and one can only hope that the damage is not to severe or the goal difference not to great in finality. A play off place must be the realistic aim and the Czech Republic will be the main obstacle to this. If Scotland can overcome Lithuania and Liechtenstein home and away all will depend on the double header with the Czechs.
The fixtures are as follows :
Lithuania (away) 3rd September 2010
Liechtenstein (home) 7th September 2010
Czech Republic (away) 8th October 2010
Spain (home) Tuesday 12th October 2010
Czech Republic (home) 3rd September 2011
Lithuania (home) 6th September 2011
Liechtenstein (away) 8th October 2011
Spain (away) 11th October 2011
The mid-week fixtures will be on Tuesdays and the weekend games on Saturday or Friday (madness).
Even by recent performances Scotland should aim to pick up maximum points in their first 2 games. If not they may as well forget it. In ideal world (not necessarily a realistic one) an away point against the Czechs followed by a home win at Hampden would ensure a play-off berth. The Spain games will take care of themselves i.e. an education.