Football: Brown fast running out of front-line options

Latvia lie in wait for the Scots tonight. Phil Shaw reports from Riga
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Scotland could be forgiven for suspecting that their Baltic mini- tour, which takes in a World Cup qualifying match against Latvia here tonight before concluding in Estonia on Wednesday, was fated from the start.

Before they flew out from Glasgow yesterday, Coventry's Eoin Jess was given compassionate leave to miss the two matches, after the death of his father earlier in the morning. Then, upon landing in Riga, the Scots found that the terminal was closed because of a fire caused by sparks from faulty welding equipment barely an hour earlier.

These latest misfortunes followed the spate of withdrawals which deprived Craig Brown of his three first-choice strikers, Ally McCoist, Duncan Ferguson and Gordon Durie, and of Colin Hendry, his vice-captain and defensive linchpin.

On the positive side, the Scottish party avoided the clouds of black smoke which engulfed the airport's baggage-reclaim area. Eschewing the bureaucratic wrangling which once characterised Eastern Bloc countries, the Latvians improvised by allowing them to collect their luggage literally off the back of a lorry. What little time the players spent waiting around was endured in warm sunshine.

Brown promptly whisked his squad away for training in the 13,500-capacity Daugava Stadium, where Scotland hope to build on last month's encouraging draw in Austria in their opening Group Four match.

Even allowing for Latvia's relative inexperience at international level - this will be their 45th fixture in the five years since secession from the Soviet Union - it promises to be anything but a formality.

Latvia have already established themselves as a cut above other "new" countries, such as Lithuania, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with whom they tend to be bracketed. They defeated Austria and Northern Ireland - in Belfast - during the last World Cup qualifying campaign, and have drawn with Denmark and Spain. Skonto Riga also put Aberdeen out of Europe two years ago, and players in the national team know that a good performance could clinch a move abroad.

Only three of Latvia's probable line-up this evening earn their corn outside the country. Vitas Rimkus, a striker with Nuremberg, poses the greatest threat to Andy Goram's goal. Rimkus has scored six times in his last 10 internationals, including the goal in a 2-1 home defeat by Sweden a month ago when Brown was among the spectators.

The Scotland manager reckons to know Latvia's personnel and system "inside out". He detected a weakness at set-pieces, citing an "horrendous error" by their keeper as having cost them a deserved draw against the Swedes, and believes they will play a more open game than Estonia.

Unlike his Welsh counterpart, Bobby Gould, Brown refused to reveal his team. He argued that Latvia's coach, Janis Gilis, was a "shrewd operator" who would make the appropriate adjustments to his beanpole defence were he to learn that Scotland planned to field two diminutive front players.

In fact, Ferguson's absence means that Brown has no tall strikers anyway. He may well start with a fresh partnership of the uncapped Billy Dodds (14 goals for Aberdeen this season) and Darren Jackson (without a goal after 12 caps). John Spencer might appear a more obvious choice, but he has never scored for Scotland either and the lack of regular action for Chelsea could count against him.

Brown spoke of "keeping changes to a minimum," which should mean Derek Whyte coming in as a straight replacement for Hendry rather than Craig Burley switching to central defence and Jackie McNamara slotting into his position.

In the circumstances, Scotland will be heavily dependent on the experienced trio of Gary McAllister, John Collins and Stuart McCall, with midfield looking as likely a source of a goal as any in a Scotland side which has almost forgotten how to score.

They have found the net in only four of the 10 matches played over the past 12 months, against San Marino (five times), Australia, the United States and Switzerland (once each). Any goal would therefore be welcomed tonight, all the more so if it earned a point or more, although the pragmatist in Brown would no doubt settle for a goalless draw followed by a 1-0 win in Tallinn next week.

"I'd rather not contemplate defeat," he said before spelling out the serious implications of such an outcome for Scotland's qualifying prospects. "But if we were to lose here then we'd probably need to beat Sweden at home and away, given that they've already won in Latvia."

SCOTLAND (probable): Goram (Rangers); Calderwood (Spurs), Whyte (Middlesbrough), Boyd (Celtic); Burley (Chelsea), McCall (Rangers), G McAllister (Coventry), Collins (Monaco), T McKinlay (Celtic); Dodds (Aberdeen), D Jackson (Hibernian).