reports from San Marino
In their attempt to make a molehill out of what is literally a mountain against San Marino here tomorrow, Scotland will turn to a striking partnership which has its origins in a school team playing in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
Duncan Shearer and John McGinlay, now with Aberdeen and Bolton respectively, are set to link in attack for the first time since their teenage days in the shinty stronghold of Caol, near Fort William. Scotland's previous visit to the Most Serene Republic of San Marino - to give this Italian anomaly its full title - suggests the experience could be anything but serene.
Four years ago, during their last European Championship qualifying campaign, Scotland struggled desperately to break down their hosts' massed rearguard. With the second half under way and the game still goalless, one of the Scottish radio summarisers encapsulated the frustration and embarrassment his compatriots felt on the Serravalle pitch.
"I've just realised something," he said. "We've been playing an hour and we're drawing 0-0 with a mountain top." A mountain top, moreover, whose population of 23,000 is smaller than that of Arbroath, yet whose "national" side demonstrated how effective the tactic of pulling nine men back behind the ball could be in international football.
That night, Pat Nevin - who seems certain to be recalled to the starting line-up for this Group Eight fixture - was sent on and promptly won a penalty that was converted by Gordon Strachan, setting Scotland on their way to a 2-0 win. The lessons were not lost on the assistant coach, Craig Brown, who is now manager.
"We've had 20-minute practice matches two days running against our Under- 21's, with them playing normally in the first game and just packing the defence in the second," Brown said. "It's hard to get through when someone plays so negatively, so we've also worked hard on corners and free-kicks."
Brown has had San Marino's hotchpotch of amateurs and part-timers watched in their last three defeats, and detects no change in attitude. "Normally when a team lose a goal, they come out and try to equalise. This lot don't - even when you score they don't change."
The Scotland manager plans to include Nevin at the expense of Stewart McKimmie; his preference for a genuine winger over a wing-back reflecting a desire to give Shearer and McGinlay the opportunity to attack crosses cut back from the flanks. "We looked at San Marino's game in Finland, where [Mixu] Paatelainen headed two goals. The goalkeeper is small, so clearly they're vulnerable in that area."
A 25th cap for Nevin - in a 10-year international career under three managers and involving no fewer than 13 substitute appearances - would earn him a silver medal from the Scottish Football Association. Meanwhile, after the draw in Russia which revived their qualifying hopes, any Scotland victory would be worth its weight in gold.
n John Aldridge and Ray Houghton are on standby for the Republic of Ireland's crucial European Championship qualifier against Portugal in Dublin tomorrow night. Aldridge is recalled in place of the Wolves striker, David Kelly, while Houghton replaces the injured Roy Keane. Steve Morrow of Arsenal yesterday became the sixth Northern Ireland player to be ruled out of their qualifier in Latvia when he failed a fitness test on an ankle injury. The Crewe midfielder, Neil Lennon, comes in as his replacement.
n Jrgen Klinsmann, the German captain, attacked Vinnie Jones's style of play, before their Euro '96 qualifier against Wales, for whom Jones is playing. "He goes for every ball. He risks both his health and that of his opponent."