Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Scotland hoping lightening can strike thrice

Spanish defeats to USA and Switzerland the only crumb of inspiration.

It is often said that fortune favours the brave. If this is the case then on Friday night Scotland not only betrayed one of their most fabled characteristics but got exactly what they deserved.

Ironically the only source of bravery emanating from Scotland on Friday came from their manager, Craig Levein. For a man who is so inherently negative that he will now forever by synonymous with football’s first double digit formation, Levein’s decision to so clearly put his head on the block was incredibly ballsy. Before deploying the now infamous 4-6-0 formation he had to have known the unparalleled amount of criticism that was about to come his way. Even in recent times where good results have been few and far between success gained by playing negatively is never looked upon gloriously in Scotland.

Nevertheless had Levein succeeded in achieving his much desired 0-0 in Prague that criticism may have been left to sources outside of Scotland, so desperate is the entire nation to qualify for its first major tournament in 14 years. By going down with the most feeble of whimpers Levein has, in contrast to Petr Cech who described the evening as ‘his quietest as a professional’, had criticism ringing in his ears for the past 72 hours.

The only positive for Scotland to come out of Friday was that Levein displayed at least one characteristic of all the great managers, he took a massive risk. Going against the sway of public opinion is never popular but it often demonstrates the kind of self-belief needed to succeed at this level. It is a feeling Levein’s opposite number on Tuesday night knows all about.

Heading into the biggest game of his managerial career, the World Cup semi-final against Germany, Vicente Del Bosque was left with a massive dilemma. A combination of fitness, form and the Samson affect had left Fernando Torres rudderless, without a goal and without any sign of getting one. It was time for Del Bosque to turn to his array of attacking talent on the bench. The sort of decision that every manager dreams about, yet dreads at the same time. There was a huge amount of experience to call on and creditable arguments to be made for any of Fernando Llorente, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas and David Silva. Yet, instead Del Bosque gave a first competitive start to Pedro Rodriguez, the decision was inspired and the rest as they say is history.

The problem with Levein’s gamble was that it was completely uncalculated. He had rightly said pre-match that the Czech Republic were vulnerable to the counter-attack, Lithuania had shown so with a 1-0 win in Olomouc last month, but you can’t counter-attack when every time you win the ball you have 10 or 11 players in your own half.

Friday’s failed experiment makes Levein’s approach to tomorrow night’s game even more intriguing. It seems impossible to go even more defensive and after admitting that ‘Prague Plan A’ was strictly a one-off there will undoubtedly be a place for Kenny Miller up front, probably ahead of a five-man midfield, although it is likely Miller will seem more like Gerard Pique’s stalker than pose any serious threat to the Spanish goal.

That said there are a few qualifications to the assumption that this will be a walkover for the World Champions. Firstly, Scotland are never an easy out at home with only two defeats in their last ten competitive outings at Hampden and even those defeats to Italy in 2007 and Holland in 2009 came with late goals as Scotland chased the victory they needed to claim a playoff place.

Secondly, for all that many, including Levein, think that this Spanish side may be the best international team ever they do have unexpected momentary collapses. Their last two competitive defeats also came against unfancied, athletic, defensive sides in the form of the U.S.A. (Confederations Cup 2009) and unforgettably Switzerland at this year’s World Cup. Moreover, any team no matter how talented will miss the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Fabregas and Torres. Friday’s 3-1 victory over Lithuania for la selección will also have given Scotland some heart as, without Xavi, Spain failed to create many opportunities of the kind that tiki-taka is famed for. Rather they relied on crosses into the box for their three goals; something that Scotland will be much happier to deal with.

Strangely the key to the game will probably be how Scotland contain the Spanish defence. With the midfield likely to be extremely congested, Miller and Steven Naismith (playing on the left side of midfield) will have to occupy Pique and Sergio Ramos in an attempt to stop them starting the attack. Similarly, on the opposite side, Alan Hutton who can be got at defensively will have to ensure that Joan Capdevilla doesn’t get round the back of the Scottish defence. This may be the tactic most used by the Spanish with either Villa or Silva starting on the left and drifting in, leaving space for Capdevilla to move into and with the supply coming from long-diagonals from Xabi Alonso.

If Scotland can protect themselves down the wings it is possible the Spanish attack may just bottleneck down the centre, particularly without the added creativity of Xavi or Fabregas.

Should Scotland get anything from the game it certainly won’t be pretty. Undoubtedly Marca, AS, El Mundo Deportivo et al will cry foul and ‘anti-football’, and to be fair they will probably be right. But for now any result, achieved by fair means or foul, would help Hampden roar again with some semblance of credibility.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kieran,

    I am a fellow Glaswegian who writes about Spanish football. I have a blog (el.camino.de.la.liga.blogspot.com) and now run a website (spanishfootball.info). I was wondering if you'd be interesting in doing some writing for us? Let us know if your interested by emailing me at editor@spanishfootball.info