Football: Brown puts his faith in midfield power

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The Independent Online
TWO WINS and two draws from their last four qualifying fixtures would guarantee Scotland a play-off for a place at European football's top table next summer. Perhaps Craig Brown is still suspicious of the arithmetic, for he arrived here last night talking about the need for maximum points, while the side he plans to send out against Bosnia-Herzegovina this evening has clearly been conceived with victory in mind.

After the way in which a patched-up Scotland surrendered a two-goal lead in Prague in June, providing the Czech Republic with the points they needed to reach Euro 2000, Brown might have been forgiven for devising a safety- first strategy for what he terms the "trickiest" of their remaining assignments. After all, once Wednesday's match against Estonia in Tallinn is over, the Scots finish with eminently winnable home games against Bosnia and Lithuania.

Instead, the Scotland manager has opted to accentuate the positive. Heartened by the Republic of Ireland's defeat of Yugoslavia, whom he regards as technically similar but superior to Bosnia, Brown hinted yesterday at a midfield bristling with scoring potential and the ability to attack from wide positions. At the same time he will resist the temptation to reinforce his favoured three at the back.

To a selection likely to contain only four players who started in Prague - Colin Calderwood, David Weir, Billy Dodds, and Neil Sullivan, who keeps his place in goal despite Wimbledon's shaky start and the challenge of Jonathan Gould - Brown is certain to restore John Collins, David Hopkin, Craig Burley and Neil McCann in the engine room.

Collins, who has not played for Scotland for a year because of injury, boasts 11 international goals, making him the top scorer among the current squad. Hopkin and Burley have both proved their capacity to find the net for club and country, while McCann made a hugely promising first full appearance against the Czechs at Celtic Park in March.

With even the holding role occupied by a player renowned for his defensive- splitting passes, the 21-year-old Barry Ferguson, Brown was justified in describing it as "a team designed not to sit in and defend". He added: "We could have put in Paul Ritchie and Christian Dailly to shore things up, but that's not our style. We've got to be positive.

"We need not to lose, but I don't think we've really got the mentality to go out to defend and play on the counter-attack. If we went into a 2-0 lead this time then we've got the capability to tighten it up. It's a major boost having Colin Hendry, John Collins and Craig Burley back. If we'd had those three in Prague, we'd never have let that lead slip."

Brown's approach to the match is almost frivolous compared with his customary caution and pragmatism. His attitude may be informed both by the knowledge that, for once, he has virtually a full-strength squad and by Bosnia's apparent decline since their stunning wins over Italy and Denmark shortly after the painful breakaway from Yugoslavia.

Since then, Bosnia have lost to China and Malta, among others, the latter defeat in January prompting the appointment of Faruk Hadzibegic as coach. A defender when Yugoslavia drew in Glasgow during qualifying for Italia 90, Hadzibegic has been saying that Scotland regard victory as a formality in an attempt to fire up his players.

In fact, for all Brown's untypical bravado, he is anything but blase. "I understand Bosnia have been more consistent under the new coach," he said. "Before, they could be brilliant, like when they beat the Danes 3-0, though they could also get results like the 2-2 draw with the Faroe Islands, who missed a penalty too. We've just got to impose ourselves on them."

Scottish optimism has been encouraged by the news that Bosnia's outstanding midfielders, Real Madrid's Elvir Baljic and Bayern Munich's Hasan Salihamadzic, are injured and suspended respectively. However, they will still field a team largely comprised of players based abroad, including Coventry's Muhamed Konjic.

Konjic fought for Bosnia's freedom as an infantryman against invading Serbs and Croats. The first transfer fee he commanded, on leaving FC Sarajevo for NK Zagreb, was paid in food parcels. His home city still bears the scars of war, the bus which took Scotland from the airport to their hotel having passed the shells of bullet-riddled buildings.

The Bosnian team is, therefore, unlikely to want for national pride. At kick-off they stand just one goal behind the Scots, yet Brown remains bullish about achieving the desired results in their six-day mini-tour of the Balkans and the Baltics.

BOSNIA (Probable): Dedic (Zenica); Joldic (Sloboda), Hibic (Sevilla), Konjic (Coventry), Mujdza (Hajduk Split); Topic (Monza); Besirevic (Osijek), Barbarez (Borussia Dortmund), Halilovic (Altay); Kodro (Alaves), Bolic (Fenerbahce).

SCOTLAND (Probable): Sullivan (Wimbledon); Weir (Everton), Hendry (Rangers), Calderwood (Aston Villa); Hopkin (Leeds), Burley (Celtic), B Ferguson (Rangers), Collins (Everton), McCann (Rangers); Hutchison (Everton), Dodds (Dundee United).

Referee: N Levnikov (Russia).