Football: Brown digs deep for answers

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The Independent Online
EVEN BY the standards of his first 50 matches as Scotland's manager, during which he frequently waged an unequal struggle against injuries, call-offs and a dearth of top class talent, Craig Brown faces an unusually searching test of his resilience and resourcefulness in tomorrow's European Championship qualifier against the Czech Republic.

Barely six weeks after achieving a dazzling victory in Germany with a typically under-strength team, Brown led another patched-up squad into Prague yesterday against a backdrop of unprecedented criticism on the home front.

Hailed as a tactical genius following the defeat of the European champions, he has been reduced by the 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands to talking about a three-way struggle with Bosnia and Estonia for second place in Group Nine and the possibility of reaching Euro 2000 via a play-off.

"We have to be blunt and say that first place is out of the question," Brown said. "It's between the three of us and I'd expected it to come down to ourselves and Bosnia. If we can get back to full strength in the last four games (away to Bosnia and Estonia, home to Bosnia and Lithuania), I'd expect that we could repeat what we did in the qualifying for Euro 96 when we won our last four.

"Twenty points would guarantee us the runners-up spot behind the Czechs. But we've got no chance of going through automatically as the second-placed country with the best record - and neither have England - so we're looking to the play-offs."

The Czechs, whose side is still largely the one beaten only by a "golden goal" against Germany in the Euro 96 final, will clinch first place if they repeat their March win in Glasgow. They present daunting opposition to the best of teams at the best of times, but the Scots will face them with the heart of their side torn out.

Missing from the back are Colin Hendry and Christian Dailly; from midfield, John Collins and Craig Burley, not to mention Billy McKinlay, Barry Ferguson or David Hopkin; and from their attacking options, Neil McCann. In such circumstances, the last thing Brown needed was to have his ranks further depleted. Matt Elliott's sending-off and suspension for slapping the face of a Faroese striker was, therefore, a kick in the teeth, especially with Hendry absent and the Czechs possessing two towering forwards in Jan Koller and Vratislav Lokvence.

Paul Ritchie, the 23-year-old Hearts defender, who was himself dismissed on his debut for Scotland Under-21s, is likely to replace Elliott. "Paul had a game as a substitute in Germany and did well against Ulf Kirsten, who is one of the best strikers in Europe," Brown said. "He's got the ability and now he certainly has the temperament."

The high ball to one of the aforementioned attackers is only part of their hosts' armoury, however. Brown must also weigh whether Ritchie is better equipped than, say, Aberdeen's Derek Whyte to cope with the ground- level wiles of Pavel Kuka, whom he characterised as "the Ally McCoist of Czech football", and the Liverpool-bound Vladimir Smicer. Scotland's scouting reports from the Czechs' 2-0 win in Estonia confirmed the positive impression they created at Celtic Park. "They were as composed and elegant as usual," Brown said. "They started with the same line-up we faced - a luxury I envy - and they apparently oozed class."

Ian Durrant, who suffered a calf injury against the Faroes which forced him to sit out the second half, is expected to return in midfield, yet the real conditioning task facing Brown at the end of a long, arduous season is likely to be mental as much as physical. "The players must get the attitude 100 per cent right," he said. "The environment and quality of the opposition will help, but we've got to fight here and play with real commitment."