TEN DAYS and counting. Scotland's samba with Brazil looms ever closer, and the evidence of their American adventure suggests that even the World Cup holders will find it difficult to dance through their defences during the finals.
A creditable draw with the United States in the frazzling heat and humidity of Washington DC, coming seven days after they shared four goals with Colombia, means that Scotland will fly to France in cautiously optimistic mood on Friday. Two years ago, before Euro 96, they lost both games against the same opponents.
True, they have not won any of their five matches since qualifying. Yet there were signs in the RFK Stadium of a timely return to the organised obduracy that has been the defining characteristic of Craig Brown's tenure.
In 24 competitive fixtures under his management, Scotland have given up a miserly eight goals and have never conceded more than two in a game. Since the American devotion to statistics often seems as great as their love of sports, there was a grudging admiration for the way the Scots simulated their tournament form and enabled Jim Leighton to keep a 46th clean sheet in 86 internationals.
That the 39-year-old goalkeeper had to make only one save against the nation ranked 11th in the world was testament to the solidity of those protecting him. If only Brown could be as confident of his strikers as he must be of his stoppers.
The lack of scoring potential remains his principal concern. A tally of four goals in the last 450 minutes of "friendly" action tells its own story. Kevin Gallacher, whose slender frame shoulders the burden of expectation after his striking feats in the group matches, wasted the two best chances on Saturday.
Despite that, Gallacher's was always going to be among the first names on the team-sheet for the Stade de France on 10 June. He is still the nearest Scotland have to a proven marksman and will be partnered, injury permitting, by Gordon Durie.
The American interlude proved useful in helping Brown to formulate his strongest lineup. The tragi-comedy over Andy Goram's exit at least resolved the goalkeeping conundrum in Leighton's favour.
The back three picks itself. Colin Calderwood and Tom Boyd, unsung but unflappable, have developed a fine understanding with Colin Hendry, whose performances were those of a man who might have been born to captain his country.
Midfield is the grey area. John Collins and Paul Lambert, who ooze technique if not the ability to deliver a "killer" pass, are certainties for two of the three central roles.
The combative Billy McKinlay looks likely to join them as a holding player against Brazil, notwithstanding popular support for the attack-minded Craig Burley. One suspects Brown views the latter as a right-sided wing- back. Christian Dailly should occupy the opposite flank.
While Dailly also failed to beat Kasey Keller, sending two headers wide, his athleticism was impressive in the conditions. There were times, he said afterwards, when he was "gasping for air".
Leighton also spoke revealingly of the physical problems Scotland encountered. A compulsive shouter, he feared he was "going to pass out" when he first tried to communicate with a defender. He likened the atmosphere to Mexico in the 1986 World Cup, when Scotland played at 7,000 feet above sea level.
The US, meanwhile, go into their opening match, against Germany, with four consecutive shut-outs behind them. Thomas Dooley, 37, directed a well drilled outfit with authority, but they lack a cutting edge. Much as Roy Wegerle's first-half drive against the bar roused the crowd, it was the kind of chance, like those spurned by Gallacher, that must be taken if they are to survive the first phase.
On the Scots' flight home, the pilot welcomed "the Scotland Football Club." The words provoked knowing titters, but it is precisely their club- like cohesiveness that will be Brown's best hope when the heat is really on against Brazil.
UNITED STATES (3-6-1): Keller (Leicester); Burns (New England Revolution), Dooley (Columbus Crew), Pope (Washington DC Utd); Moore (New England), Stewart (NAC Breda) Regis (Karlsruhe), Deering (Wolfsburg), Ramos (New York-New Jersey MetroStars), Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy); Wegerle (Tampa Bay Mutiny). Substitutes: Wynalda (San Jose Clash) for Wegerle, 63; Radosavljevic (Kansas City Wizards) for Ramos, 56; Lalas (New York-New Jersey MetroStars) for Burns, 82; Agoos (Washington DC Utd) for Moore, 69.
SCOTLAND (3-5-2): Leighton (Aberdeen); Calderwood (Tottenham), Hendry (Blackburn), Boyd (Celtic); Dailly (Derby), B McKinlay (Blackburn), Lambert (Celtic), Collins (Monaco), T McKinlay (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn), Jackson (Celtic). Substitutes: McNamara (Celtic) for T McKinlay, 60; Burley (Celtic) for B McKinlay, 73; Donnelly (Celtic) for Gallacher, 82.
Referee: R Felipe (Mexico).
Bookings: US: Radosavljevic, Burns. Scotland: Calderwood, Boyd, Jackson.
Man of the Match: Hendry.Reuse content