Football: McCoist in doubt for Scotland

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SCOTLAND, already without the injured Gordon Durie, may be forced to face Malta in tomorrow's Group One match at Ibrox without the more prolific half of their first- choice strike force, Ally McCoist. It is a situation which mirrors Graham Taylor's difficulties over first Alan Shearer and now Ian Wright.

One of the McCoist thighs, injured during Rangers' draw with Airdrieonians on Saturday, disrupted Andy Roxburgh's preparations in Perth yesterday in much the same way that Ian Wright's muscle injury did for England. Whereas Wright pulled up dramatically near the end of Arsenal's FA Cup tie, McCoist was unaware of any damage, or even how he sustained it, until after the game.

The doubts about McCoist tended to overshadow Roxburgh's decision to restore Alex McLeish to the captaincy. Welcome as the return of the Aberdeen defender is after two injury-ravaged years, Scotland's prospects of reviving their World Cup qualifying hopes are likely to hinge on the national coach finding someone to score goals rather than stop them.

In the event of McCoist's reporting fit - and Roxburgh said hopefully that the Rangers striker is 'a quick healer' - he will almost certainly form a three-pronged attack with John Robertson, a penalty- box predator who scored on his first two Scotland appearances, and Eoin Jess, the 22-year-old who made his debut as a substitute against Italy in November.

Should McCoist fail to meet this morning's deadline for recovery, Roxburgh will shred his plans and start again. In those circumstances there could be a first cap for Jess's Aberdeen colleague Duncan Shearer, who is otherwise unlikely to play, or even a recall for Duncan Ferguson, the Dundee United maverick who is due to turn out for the Under-21s today.

While they might lose their leading scorer - McCoist has 13 goals in 44 internationals and 41 for his club this season - Scotland's other main injury worries have receded. Dave McPherson, the tall stopper who may trouble Malta at set-pieces, trained and will play; likewise Gary McAllister, about whose form Howard Wilkinson has been enthusing to Roxburgh.

Scotland's coach admitted that 'things had started shambolically', but remained confident they would be all right on the night. He became a master of 'make do or die' during the qualifying for Italia '90, when a procession of withdrawals inspired a comedy sketch on Scottish radio which had Roxburgh's answerphone asking callers to leave their name and injury.

In this context it is satisfying that the 34-year old McLeish, who won his 76th and last cap in March 1991, is fit to lead the side again in Richard Gough's absence. 'The first thing I did at Sunday's team meeting was to name Alex captain,' Roxburgh said. 'Not only is he playing well, he's also very inspirational.'

His hope is that Paul McStay, who stood in for Gough against Italy but is no Roy Aitken when it comes to fist-shaking, can now concentrate solely on playmaking. Scotland certainly need McStay at his most creative, for while Malta have drawn four and lost the other 32 of their World Cup qualifiers over the past 35 years, the margin of recent reverses proves they are no San Marino.

SCOTLAND (probable): Goram (Rangers); Malpas (Dundee United), Boyd (Celtic), McPherson (Rangers), McLeish (Aberdeen, capt), McAllister (Leeds), McStay (Celtic), Collins (Celtic), McCoist (Rangers), Robertson (Hearts), Jess (Aberdeen).

SCOTLAND Under-21 (v Malta Under-21 at Tannadice, Dundee 1.30pm today): Howie (Clyde); Murray (Rangers), Wright (Aberdeen, capt), Bain (Dundee), Deas (St Johnstone), Bernard (Oldham), Telfer (Luton), Johnson (Dundee United), Darren Ferguson (Manchester United), Duncan Ferguson (Dundee United), Booth (Aberdeen).

Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland's manager, called up the Crystal Palace defender Darren Patterson after losing Bernard McNally and Kevin Wilson from his squad for the Group Three World Cup qualifying match against Albania on Wednesday. Both the midfield players failed fitness tests, West Bromwich Albion's McNally on a groin strain and Wilson, of Notts County, on a thigh strain. Mal Donaghy, Kingsley Black and Michael Hughes reported fit after minor injuries.

(Photograph omitted)