Football: Goal earns promotion for Collins

Latvia 0 Scotland 2
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The Independent Online

reports from Daugava Stadium, Riga

Latvia 0 Scotland 2

Behind the spartan stand where the 800 Scotland supporters congregated runs the railway line from Riga to St Petersburg, which on a good day is a 12-hour haul. Qualifying for the World Cup finals is a similarly arduous journey, but the Scots' road to France in 1998 is beginning to look a little clearer.

Although these are early days in the Group Four campaign, this success gives Craig Brown's team a healthy four points from two awkward-looking away fixtures. Victory on Wednesday over Latvia's ostensibly weaker Baltic neighbours, Estonia, would set Scotland up nicely for next month's crucial encounter with Sweden in Glasgow, if not exactly sending their followers scurrying for the Michelin guide.

In Tallinn, they will be without their inspirational captain, Gary McAllister, who is suspended after picking up a caution to add to the one he received in Austria last month, as well as lacking the injured Stuart McCall. John Collins, scorer of a sublime goal in the Latvian capital, will don the skipper's armband for the first time in his 39 caps.

The Scotland manager reasoned that Collins, his only ever-present during the qualifying for the European Championship finals, is held in the highest esteem by his colleagues. While the 28-year-old midfielder is undemonstrative - he scarcely batted an eyelid on hearing of his elevation - Brown is confident that he will lead by example.

He certainly did so on Saturday, giving Scotland the early advantage they craved from the kind of imaginative free-kick routine that was conspicuous by its absence throughout the great summer football-fest. McCall rolled the ball short to Collins, who put a foot on it as McAllister thundered in like a latter-day Peter Lorimer.

As he drew back his right foot, Collins suddenly spun away with the ball before despatching it beyond the goalkeeper from 18 yards. He recalled scoring from an identical ruse for Celtic against Rangers one New Year's Day, though his ninth goal for Scotland was the culmination of lengthy practice on the playing fields of Stratford-upon-Avon during Euro 96.

Darren Jackson, like Collins a former Hibernian player, settled the issue with his first goal in 13 internationals. Cementing the impression that this was a triumph with its origins at Easter Road, another one-time Hibs favourite, Andy Goram, underlined his status as a world-class keeper with an extraordinary save either side of Jackson's clincher.

It was, notwithstanding the loss of two key players, a satisfying evening for a makeshift Scotland side. As Brown conceded, he had been "very worried about Latvia - I thought it could have been a banana skin for us." The intensity of his team's football in the opening half-hour was on a par with their display against Switzerland at Villa Park. Only after McCall retired, allowing Vitalijs Astafjevs to power forward, were they under any pressure.

After yesterday's Under-21 match, the Scots made the short hop to Tallinn. Awaiting them was Brown's "spy", Frank Coulston, the Scottish FA coach, who watched Estonia beat Belarus on Saturday to record their first competitive win in the five years since the Baltic states regained independence.

The management expect the Estonians to adhere rigidly to a negative 4- 1-4-1 system, and Scotland will adjust accordingly. "We won't need three at the back if they only have one up," Brown reasoned. "We could play a 2-4-4, but we're more likely to go for 2-5-3." In that event, Derek Whyte would probably drop out of defence. Craig Burley could move inside as part of a central midfield trio with Collins and possibly Scot Gemmill, with Jackie McNamara starting an international for the first time at wing-back.

The absence of McAllister and McCall means Scotland will be without seven of their original squad. However, if fortune proves as faithful a friend to Brown as trouble - which is always there for him - then three points in Estonia will be accompanied by a draw between Sweden and Austria the same evening.