Football / International Postscript: Jess the ticket as Scots tuck in: Phil Shaw hails the young striker whose debut sparked comparisons with Dalglish

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POTENTIAL and Portugal were uppermost in Andy Roxburgh's mind yesterday, as Scotland's coach reflected on Eoin Jess's richly promising contribution to the 3-0 victory over Malta and looked forward to a Group One date in Lisbon on 28 April.

With the exception of Jess, the Aberdeen forward making his first full appearance, Scotland hardly set the heather alight against the mediocre Maltese. But their first win of this World Cup campaign at least brought the chances of reaching a sixth successive finals in from the realms of fantasy to the outskirts of possibility.

It also ensured that Roxburgh's trip to Oporto next Wednesday, when the Portuguese meet Italy, will be no mere chore of duty. Two points for Roxburgh's team in Portugal, or even one, would extend into the autumn their interest in qualifying for the United States, especially with a double- header against Estonia to come before then.

'The Stadium of Light will be a real cauldron,' he said. 'From experience, though, I can see no reason why we can't get something there. That's what we're focused on now.'

The mobile and skilful Jess, who made goals for both Ally McCoist and Pat Nevin as well as twice going close himself, will certainly retain his place in Portugal. Roxburgh cautioned against getting carried away, yet there was a moment early in Wednesday's game which confirmed his feeling that the 22-year-old from the fishing village of Portsoy was 'a class act' with something of the young Kenny Dalglish about him.

'Eoin (pronounced Ian) went past a defender, made a yard for himself and whipped in a brilliant cross,' he said. 'No one reacted because they never knew he could do it.' He added that 'one or two' other young players, possibly Jess's club colleagues, Stephen Wright and Scott Booth, would appear in the friendly against Germany at Ibrox on 24 March.

Meanwhile, Malta's coach, Philip Psaila, claimed that the section was the most open in Europe. 'Other groups might have two or three logical candidates,' he said. 'This has four, split into Nordic and Latin styles.'

Malta have now played them all. Switzerland, the leaders, were 'far more aggressive and difficult to beat' than in the past, a change he attributed to their English coach. 'You can see the the difference in a gifted player like Alain Sutter. It's a real feather in Roy Hodgson's cap.'

Portugal had all the qualities - 'imagination, technique, tactical continuity' - necessary to qualify. 'The only obstacle is temperament. They seem to be people who argue with each other.'

Italy represented a paradox for Psaila. 'They have the best organised domestic football, yet their national team seems poorly organised. I'm sure (Arrigo) Sacchi will get it right, as he did with Milan. I can't see the Italians not making it - that would be a disaster for the Americans. I gather New York has already been designated for them.'

And Scotland? 'Unpredictability is one of the characteristics of their game,' he said. 'But when their backs are against the wall they have a mental toughness and resilience the others might lack.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- WORLD CUP GROUP ONE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Switzerland 4 3 1 0 14 3 7 Italy 3 1 2 0 4 3 4 Scotland 4 1 2 1 4 3 4 Portugal 2 1 1 0 1 0 3 Estonia 2 0 1 1 0 6 1 Malta 5 0 1 4 1 9 1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

REMAINING FIXTURES 24 February Portugal v Italy; 24 March Italy v Malta; 31 March Switzerland v Portugal; 14 April Italy v Estonia; 17 April Malta v Switzerland; 28 April Portugal v Scotland; 1 May Switzerland v Italy; 12 May Estonia v Malta; 19 May Estonia v Scotland; 2 June Scotland v Estonia; 19 June Portugal v Malta; 5 September Estonia v Portugal; 8 September Scotland v Switzerland; 22 September Estonia v Italy; 13 October Portugal v Switzerland; Italy v Scotland; 10 November Portugal v Estonia; 17 November Italy v Portugal; Malta v Scotland; Switzerland v Estonia. -----------------------------------------------------------------