Football: Scotland must not waste energy

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The Independent Online
ALL CRAIG Brown's meticulous preparations are finally over and he will be hoping his charges are ready for what will be their first and probably toughest test of the tournament.

Sadly for Scotland, almost everything about the opening game will suit their opponents, Brazil. The Scottish style is for both forwards to harry and hassle the opposition's defenders, nipping at their heels and trying to unsettle them. This will not work against the world champions because their defenders are not that easily shaken. They are as comfortable on the ball as most play-making midfielders from other countries and will happily pass it around the scampering Scottish forwards, drawing the sting out of their game.

If Brown changes the tactics and asks his forwards merely to give token resistance, it will result in most of the game being played in the 40 yards in front of Jim Leighton's goal. Against most international teams this is often a fairly good plan. With plenty of bodies behind the ball and strong committed defending they can provide a formidable barrier. Especially with these Scottish defenders who know and understand each other so well. However, with 90 minutes of sustained pressure, it is difficult to imagine the Brazilians failing to break through at some point.

Scotland's defenders face the added problem of having to curb their natural enthusiasm, because of uncertainty over the implementation of the new rules. They cannot take the chance of trying to "nick" the ball because it may be construed as a tackle from behind and result in a red card. In the first game, more than any other, the referee will be expected to put down some sort of marker that will be used for the rest of the tournament. Hendry, Calderwood and Boyd will find themselves as guinea pigs for an experiment that will interest hundreds of millions of people.

On the positive side, all three at least sounded as though they were quite at ease with the impending trial by television. Boyd said: "There is no pressure, really, everyone expects us to lose, so we will give it our best shot. If we get anything, it's a bonus."

The whole build-up by the Scottish management team has tried to promote this fairly relaxed, even low-key, attitude shown by the players. Brown has known all along that there is no need to motivate his players for the opener. Keeping them as calm and confident as possible, not allowing them to be overcome by the enormity of the occasion, has been the more pressing consideration.

In the daily press conferences over here in Saint Remy, the manager has been at pains to underline the high levels of experience within the squad. "Lambert has won a Champions' League medal, Collins played in a semi-final of the same tournament this season with Monaco, Colin Hendry has won an English Premiership title with Blackburn, eight of the squad play with the current Scottish champions, Celtic. The Old Firm contingent always play their home games in front of over 50,000 fans, only Manchester United in England can boast that."

The barrage of facts and figures is aimed at least as much at his own players and the attendant hordes of reporters. He knows that if his team were to go out against the Brazilians with an inferiority complex it could be a recipe for disaster.

Captain Colin Hendry was distinctly relaxed about his role as "one of" Ronaldo's markers today. A Brazilian journalist asked, in admirable English: "At night, do you dream about Ronaldo?"

"I'm a happily married man, with three children, I don't dream about other men," was the typically dry Scottish reply. The Brazilian did not fully grasp the joke, expecting veneration, not flippancy, when Ronaldo's name was mentioned. The same journalist was equally mystified at Brown's description of Denilson as "a very good player, nearly as good as John Collins".

In a more serious moment, Hendry claimed: "I am no more anxious than normal about this particular game, as I play against some of the world's best strikers in the English Premiership every week."

The Scots have got the tone just about right, because the build-up has been right. There has been hard work but as little pressure as possible heaped on the players. The games in the United States took the players out of their environment in Britain, and indeed Europe, that has been building up to fever pitch since the end of the domestic seasons. It also took them away from the worst excesses of the tabloid media. The headquarters the squad has been at for the past week in Saint Remy is quiet and secluded, to the point that it is probably difficult for them to believe the World Cup is almost upon them. So Scotland will arrive at Saint Denis today confident in their ability but certainly not cocky. Relaxed but certainly not lackadaisical, excited but not over anxious.

The most likely outcome however, is a 2-0 win for the Brazilians, mainly because it would actually suit both teams quite well. A couple of goals would be enough cushion for the holders. There is little point in tearing into the Scots beyond this, as they expect another six games over the next 33 days. Tiredness and injuries can cost you the World Cup, just witness the Germans' usual routine progression from the group stage with the bare minimum of fuss and physical exertion.

A 2-0 defeat is not too bad for Scotland, either. Realistically, Brown will not be expecting any points from this fixture. Pragmatic almost to a fault, he will realise that, although more people will watch this match than any other in Scotland's history, it is actually the least important of their three games in the group.

Desperate to avoid an embarrassing scoreline, Brown will be just as keen to ensure his players do not waste all their energy vainly chasing shadows in this one outing. A narrow defeat and a courageous but professional display will allow him to concentrate on Norway and Morocco, two teams who can be beaten given a fair wind of fortune. A win against Brazil, however, would need a hurricane - and even a 0-0 draw would necessitate a force nine. I will be up in the press box praying for a storming Scottish performance anyway.