Football: Brown's plans kept in check

IN THE most searching examination so far of Craig Brown's legendary powers of improvisation, Scotland will tonight attempt to extend their 12-year unbeaten home record in competitive fixtures without a single recognised striker when they receive the Czech Republic in a potentially decisive European Championship qualifier at Celtic Park.

The Scotland manager, intent on keeping his Czech counterpart guessing, will not announce his line-up for the game against the Group Nine leaders and 1996 finalists until the last possible moment. But a glance at the list from which he will choose would leave Jozef Chovanec in no doubt as to the makeshift nature of the Scottish attack.

Gary McAllister, who will captain Scotland on his first appearance since sustaining the knee injury which kept out of last summer's World Cup finals, summed up Brown's lack of even one obvious marksman when he noted that he is the top scorer among the 20-man squad. His 56 caps have produced a grand total of five goals - including two from penalties and two against what he self-mockingly called "the mighty Canadians".

Eoin Jess, a midfielder for much of his career, will be pressed into service as a forward, having at least played there for Aberdeen lately. Should Brown revert to his trusted 3-5-2 formation, rather than the riskier 3-4-3 which earned narrow home wins over Estonia and the Faroe Islands, Jess's probable partner is Rangers' Neil McCann, nominally a winger, with a strong hint that another flank specialist, Sunderland's Allan Johnston, will be summoned from the bench at some stage.

By comparison with the front and back units, from which such familiar figures as Durie, Gallacher, Dailly and Hendry are missing, the Scots are spoiled for choice in midfield. Yet McAllister played down the theory that the match would be won or lost there. "I'm confident it'll be decided by our strikers, but there are goals in this squad anyway," he said, going on to identify Craig Burley and centre-backs marauding at set-pieces as alternative sources.

Given that their opponents stand some 20 places above them at seventh in the world rankings published by Fifa, the game's global governing body, it would not surprise many observers if this were to prove to be a game too far for Brown's make-do-or-die philosophy. Yet Scotland have not lost a qualifying fixture on home soil since Mark Lawrenson's goal settled a 1987 match in the Republic of Ireland's favour, and there is a steely determination to keep the run going.

"It's a game we have to win," McAllister said, mindful that the Czechs would go eight points clear by winning. "Though a draw wouldn't be a disaster, it would make it very difficult because we'd have to win in Prague. Some of their players are household names because of Euro 96 but, while we respect them, we're not in awe of them."

McAllister added: "We've got to start fast. A slow pace would suit them better than us, so we need to try to play at a British tempo, like we did when we beat Austria at Celtic Park in the World Cup, though we also played some nice stuff that night."

Karel Poborsky, the Czechs' former Manchester United winger, expressed a similar view on arriving at Glasgow airport: "If we get a good start and keep it tight, Scotland might get nervous. All the pressure's on them because they're at home and they're five points behind us."

Poborsky's failure to establish himself at Old Trafford, like Patrik Berger's status as a "bit-part player" at Liverpool, was cited by McAllister as evidence that victory is not beyond Scotland's capabilities.

Indeed, when looked at from a different perspective, the Czechs appear far from invincible. They failed to qualify for France 98, surrendered tamely to England in an autumn friendly at Wembley, and needed an "unsporting", Arsenal-style goal to scrape through in the Faroes. They will also be without a key defender, the suspended Tomas Repka, although that still leaves with Scots with fewer than half the aggregate number of caps collected by their visitors.

Brown, who watched Chovanec's team labour to a 2-0 home win over Lithuania on Saturday, would dearly like to know whether the first-choice striker, Vladimir Smicer, will be partnered by the the nippier Pavel Kuka or the taller Vratislav Lokvenc. In the absence of such intelligence, he has plans for either contingency and has even rehearsed two different playing systems. If Scotland's proud record is taken, it will not be for want of meticulous preparation.

SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Sullivan (Wimbledon); Weir (Everton), Elliott (Leicester), Boyd (Celtic); Hopkin (Leeds), Burley (Celtic), McAllister (Coventry), Lambert (Celtic), Davidson (Blackburn); Jess (Aberdeen), McCann (Rangers).

CZECH REPUBLIC (3-5-2; probable): Srnicek (Sheffield Wednesday); Hornak (Sparta Prague), Suchoparek (Strasbourg), Votava (Sparta Prague); Poborsky (Benfica), Hasek (Sparta Prague), Nedved (Lazio), Nemek (Schalke 04), Berger (Liverpool); Smicer (Lens), Kuka (Nuremberg).

Referee: K Nielsen (Denmark).

n Uefa, football's European governing body, says it will be forced to expel from the European Championship any country subjected to a UN embargo."Our actions depend on the political situation which is beyond our control," a spokesman said.

GROUP NINE

P W D L F A Pts

Czech Rep 4 4 0 0 10 2 12

Scotland 3 2 1 0 5 3 7

Lithuania 4 1 2 1 4 4 5

Estonia 4 1 1 2 9 8 4

Bosnia 4 1 1 2 5 8 4

Faroe Islands 5 0 1 4 1 9 1

Fixtures: Today: Lithuania v Estonia; Scotland v Czech Republic. 5 June: Bosnia v Lithuania; Estonia v Czech Republic; Faroe Islands v Scotland. 9 June: Estonia v Lithuania; Faroe Islands v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Scotland. 18 Aug: Bosnia v Scotland (to be confirmed). Scotland v Bosnia. 4 Sept: Bosnia v Scotland; Faroe Islands v Estonia; Lithuania v Czech Republic. 8 Sept: Czech Republic v Bosnia; Faroe Islands v Lithuania; Estonia v Scotland. 9 Oct: Estonia v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Faroe Islands; Scotland v Lithuania.

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