Football: Scotland stick to ambitious game plan

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PERHAPS ONLY Scotland could come straight from an embarrassing draw against an outcrop of windswept rocks where sheep outnumber people and contemplate, with any degree of realism, an away victory over the nation Craig Brown regards as "the best footballing team in Europe".

Scotland's failure to defeat the Faroe Islands - who stand 117th in Fifa's world rankings - would appear to place a win here tonight against the Czech Republic - whose global rating is fifth - in the realm of remote possibility. But Scots are invariably more comfortable in the role of underdogs, and Brown is adamant that they remain capable of delaying the Czechs' inevitable advance towards Euro 2000.

Had Scotland not beaten Germany, the European champions, only six weeks ago, such a suggestion would have smacked of mere Braveheart bravado. Despite the fact that their long list of absentees includes the two most influential performers in Bremen, namely Colin Hendry and Don Hutchison, Brown spoke yesterday of his players' determination to restore Scotland's battered pride and of their "big incentive" to take at least a point off the Czechs.

The Scotland manager had previously written off all thoughts of qualifying automatically for next year's finals as the runners up with the best record. Brown has now revised his position, noting that the draws in Lithuania and the Faroes will not be part of the calculations provided those two countries finish bottom of Group Nine.

Instead, Uefa's equivalent of the Duckworth-Lewis scoring method will take into account Scotland's results against the Czechs, Estonia, and Bosnia, assuming that they remain first, third and fourth respectively.

The scenario could, in fact, prove uncannily similar to the qualifying campaign for the last World Cup. Were that the case, conceding a late equaliser in Toftir last Saturday would no more work against Scotland than the barren stalemate against Estonia in Monaco early in 1997. Following that frustration, they won their four outstanding fixtures to book their passage to France.

If push came to shove, a Scotland side reinforced by Hendry, John Collins, Craig Burley and Neil McCann could reasonably expect to overcome Lithuania, Estonia and Bosnia (twice). However, where the theory becomes "a bit pie- in-the-sky", as Brown admitted, is this evening's encounter in the Sparta Stadium.

The Czechs go into the game knowing they have already beaten their opponents in Glasgow. Moreover, they can guarantee their place in the finals by maintaining their 100 per cent record.

Brown is envious both of the continuity of selection enjoyed by his opposite number, Jozef Chovanec, and the quality currently available to the Euro 96 finalists. "I'd say there's not much between them and Germany," he said, "though if they were to play a competitive fixture, I'd take the Germans.

"The Czechs are the best footballing side in Europe. They've got a magnificent midfield, where [Pavel] Nedved is particularly outstanding and [Patrik] Berger can be when he takes it into his head. They can also choose from four strikers any country would welcome."

The circumstances are less than propitious for a 23-year-old to be given his first starting appearance, yet Brown has little option other than to bring in Paul Ritchie. The Hearts defender's lack of height could prove a problem against Vratislav Lokvenc or Jan Koller, who are both well over six feet tall, so David Weir is likely to switch from wing-back to the centre of a back three.

Stopping the supply to the front two will be Scotland's main priority. To that end, Colin Calderwood's tenacity might be deployed in midfield in order to man-mark Berger or Nedved. Similarly, Allan Johnston may be detailed to push up on the Scottish right, occupying Jiri Nemec in an attempt to stifle his customary service.

CZECH REPUBLIC (3-5-2; probable): Srnicek (Sheffield Wednesday); Repka (Fiorentina), Hornak (Sparta Prague), Suchoparek (Strasborg); Poborsky (Benfica), Hasek (Sparta Prague), Nemec (Schalke 04), Nedved (Lazio), Berger (Liverpool); Smicer (Lens), Lokvenc (Sparta Prague).

SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Sullivan (Wimbledon); Boyd (Celtic), Weir (Everton), Ritchie (Hearts); Johnston (Sunderland), Durrant (Kilmarnock), Calderwood (Aston Villa), Lambert (Celtic), Davidson (Blackburn); Gallacher (Blackburn), Dodds (Dundee United).

Referee: H Krug (Germany).