Football: Scotland alive with rare expectancy

Group A: Craig Brown's shrewd stewardship on brink of progress while an influential talent refuses to be phased
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The Independent Online
THE DAY after Celtic won the European Cup, one paper ran a picture of a deserted Glasgow city centre. In late afternoon, when the streets would normally have been heaving, even Rangers supporters were watching the game. Three decades later, a nation will again be transfixed before its televisions tonight as Scotland strive for another potentially momentous victory.

By reaching the second phase for the first time, which they would achieve by a combination of their own success against Morocco at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard and Norway failing to beat Brazil, a country of barely five million people could justifiably consider itself among the world's top 16 in football terms. They would also vindicate Craig Brown's meticulous management at a time when Scotland arguably have little of the flair which abounded at the time of Celtic's 1967 triumph.

Progress is unlikely to come easily; it seldom does for the Scots. Those who assume Morocco to be strictly Third World in the sporting sense overlook the fact that their squad is drawn from clubs in Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany, and that their coach, Henri Michel, led France to fourth place in 1986.

They also neglect the evidence of Scotland's record, both of embarrassment by the likes of Iran, Costa Rica and Estonia, and of tortuous near-misses in both the World Cup and the European Championship finals. They invariably come within a whisker of advancing from the group stages. The notion of heroic failure is burnt deep into the Scottish psyche.

Brown, as a student of statistics and the game's history, is painfully aware that they will have to cross the Rubicon, never mind the Rhone, in order to continue the journey with the world champions and their fellow travellers. In 22 fixtures spread over seven tournaments, Scotland have beaten only Zaire, New Zealand, Sweden and (bizarrely) a Dutch side on its way to the 1978 final. With each successive setback, the mental burden grows heavier.

And yet, against all that, one senses in both the manager and his players a burning conviction that this time they will not, in the words of their strangely plaintive official song, "come home too soon". Scotland may have had more gifted individuals, but under Brown they have lost just four competitive matches in four and a half years. The true value of concepts such as organisation and discipline, once deemed to be out of sync with the romantic spirit of the Scottish game, has been seen in France as it was at Euro 96.

The days when Ally MacLeod could go into a match against Peru oblivious to their talents and tactics are long gone. The doomsday scenario still exists, in the form of Norway benefiting from Brazil possibly fielding reserve players, but there has never been a clearer opportunity to banish forever talk of hoodoos and jinxes.

Indeed, for once, Scotland's misfortune could actually be about to work in their favour. The reshuffle which followed the substitution of Colin Calderwood and Darren Jackson against Norway in Bordeaux may have led Brown to a line-up to be tinkered with at his peril.

The latter's exit as the principal attacker among the central midfield trio suddenly saw things fall into place. Craig Burley, whom Brown previously regarded as too valuable at wing-back, was switched inside and promptly scored. Jackie McNamara came on to bring a fresh dimension to the wide role.

Brown may be tempted to keep McNamara on the bench, moving Christian Dailly to the right flank and recalling Tosh McKinlay to the opposite side. The Moroccan keeper, Driss Benzekri, has looked insecure on crosses, and McKinlay is renowned for his delivery.

The first-choice forwards, Kevin Gallacher and Gordon Durie, certainly deserve a goal for their prodigious efforts: the last Scotland striker to net from open play in the finals was Joe Jordan in 1982. However, Brown is confident that if John Collins and Paul Lambert see as much of the ball as against Norway, the chances will come.

Equally, he realises that the North Africans will present entirely different problems to the Scandinavians. If there are doubts about their stamina, there are none about their skill. In the Spanish-based Moustafa Hadji, Henri possesses a player whose ability to dribble at speed could destroy Scotland.

In the past, Brown has deputed a man-marker to negate players who operate in "the hole" such as Jari Litmanen, of Finland, and Austria's Andreas Herzog. Hadji poses a more elusive threat in that he roams wide and free. Scotland's prospects may hinge on whether they can prevent him from hitting them on the break or feeding the frontrunners.

Extraordinarily, Scotland could go through with two points or out with four. There is also a strong possibility that qualification could come down to the drawing of lots.

Michel, sacked by France after Scotland beat them to reach Italia 90, probably feels he is due a break tonight. Brown reflects on the "terrible luck" his predecessors endured and reckons it is time fortune favoured the bravehearts. With anticipation tinged by trepidation, Scotland expects.

SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Leighton (Aberdeen); Weir (Heart of Midlothian), Hendry (Blackburn Rovers), Boyd; McNamara, Burley, Lambert (all Celtic), Collins (Monaco), Dailly (Derby County); Gallacher (Blackburn Rovers), Durie (Rangers).

GROUP A: THE PERMUTATIONS

Brazil are assured of winning the group and will meet the runners- up in Group B on 27 June. The team finishing second play the winners of Group B on the same day.

1 Brazil beat Norway; Scotland beat Morocco: Scotland finish as runners- up

2 Brazil beat Norway; Scotland draw with Morocco: Three teams finish on two points but in this scenario Morocco can not finish above Scotland.

If Norway lose by two goals or more, Scotland finish second.

If Norway lose by one goal, their goal difference will be equal to Scotland's and second place will be decided by the total goals scored in the group. In this scenario Norway qualify if they at least match Scotland's goals tonight; Scotland qualify if they score two or more goals than Norway tonight, lots will be drawn if Scotland score one more goal than Norway tonight.

3 Brazil beat Norway; Morocco beat Scotland: Morocco finish as runners- up.

4 Brazil draw with Norway; Scotland beat Morocco: Scotland finish as runners-up.

5 Brazil draw with Norway; Scotland draw with Morocco: Norway finish as runners-up.

6 Brazil draw with Norway; Morocco beat Scotland: Morocco finish as runners- up.

7 Norway beat Brazil; Scotland beat Morocco: Norway finish as runners- up.

8 Norway beat Brazil; Scotland draw with Morocco: Norway finish as runners- up.

9 Norway beat Brazil; Morocco beat Scotland: Norway finish as runners- up.

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