Football: Brown wary of the Latvian threat

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Only a team from a tiny Baltic state stand between Scotland and automatic qualification the World Cup finals.

The Tartan Army is getting ready to party in the streets of Glasgow, but, as Phil Shaw discovered, the word from the Scotland camp is caution first, celebration second.

If, before the schedule for the qualifying series was drawn up, Glenn Hoddle and Craig Brown had been asked to choose between needing only a point from their last match or having to win and still not be certain of reaching the World Cup finals, it is safe to assume neither would have selected the second option.

Had it been explained, however, that the choice would lie between holding Italy in a stadium where they are practically invincible and beating Latvia in a ground heaving with home supporters, the answer might have been different.

By the time eternal enemy get underway in the Eternal City tonight, Celtic Park will have sent the Tartan Army away to become a menace to sobriety.

The signs are, both in terms of Scotland's record under Brown and the precedents of five successful campaigns in the past quarter of a century, that they will be drinking to remember.

"We have to show our usual enthusiasm, but it must be tempered by great concentration" he said, after the final training session beneath a cloudburst at Kilmarnock. "One lapse in that area could beat us.

"Fortunately our players are hugely experienced. A lot of them play in the English Premiership where a second's loss of concentration can kill you."

To some, this may sound like talking up a tiny Baltic state who have beaten only Belarus and Estonia in Group Four. But Brown could take an honours course in the football of the former Soviet republic and his studies convince him that the likes of Vitas Rimkus, a striker he likens to Gerd Muller, and the playmaker, Vladimir Babichev, are a cut above most of their contemporaries.

"Latvia try to play," he warned. "They do get men back behind the ball when they lose possession, but unlike Belarus they look capable of scoring. You worry about them from the point of view of the quick counter-attack. We need to impose ourselves on the game and dictate the tempo."

In keeping with his determinedly low-key style, Brown is unlikely to spring any selection surprises. Despite having only four caps, Christian Dailly looks certain to keep his place in the back three. The return of Colin Hendry to that unit may mean Tom Boyd earning his 50th cap in left- midfield at the expense of Tosh McKinlay, whose lack of first-team opportunities with Celtic could count against him.

Up front, where Simon Donnelly has been enjoying a scoring streak for the host club, Gordon Durie's experience should earn him the nod as Kevin Gallacher's partner. McKinlay's ability to deliver free-kicks and crosses, along with the drive and scoring knack of David Hopkin, will doubtless be summoned if Scotland struggle.

Brown, while seeking a balance between confidence and caution, sees no reason why they should. "We take optimism from the way we beat Belarus and the fact that our players are all in such good form. John Collins, for instance, is now captaining Monaco. Gary McAllister's back to top form after a much needed summer break. Kevin Gallacher's on fire, and Roy Hodgson tells me Colin Hendry has been immense for Blackburn since he got back to 100 per cent fitness.

"These players deserve to qualify for their attitude. The fans deserve it too - we've had a full house at every home game and a fantastic away following. I saw the Swedes in Belarus and they had about a dozen supporters. We took several hundred."

The match in Minsk produced one of 17 clean sheets in Scotland's last 23 fixtures; incredibly they have let in just three goals in 15 hours of competitive football since losing to England at Euro 96. Reinforced by such statistics, Brown expects to win "1-0 or 2-0" and anticipates that victory would suffice.

"Put it this way," he said, "I'll be looking for a stewards' inquiry if Spain lose at home to the Faroe Islands and take the best runners-up place."

Whatever the outcome, the Scotland squad will disperse after the game - not to reconvene until Denmark visit Ibrox for a friendly in March - rather than staying together to watch the "other" match.

As part of Channel Five's promotion for their coverage of the Scotland game, Brown appeared on The Jack Docherty Show late on Thursday. "He was trying to set me up to say I hoped England would lose," the manager said, before revealing that bravado does enter his thinking after all.

"I hope they win - and that we then get our revenge by beating them in the World Cup semi-final."

SCOTLAND (Probable, 3-5-2): Leighton (Aberdeen); Calderwood (Tottenham), Hendry (Blackburn), Dailly (Derby); Burley (Celtic), McAllister (Coventry), Lambert (Borussia Dortmund), Collins (Monaco), Boyd (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn), Durie (Rangers).