Football: Scots' age concern for the future

Lithuania 0 Scotland 0
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Lithuania 0 Scotland 0

THE EASIEST team to pick, declared Craig Brown after the most sterile Scotland display in his five years as manager, is the Hindsight XI. The hardest, and perhaps most significant for the future of the Scottish game, may be the one he sends out in their next European Championship qualifier, at home to Estonia in a month's time.

Scotland's starting line-up in Lithuania was their oldest in living memory, with an average age of nearly 32, and only Christian Dailly not at least into his 30th year. Yet they finished with a tantalising glimpse of things to come after Brown threw on a trio of uncapped players - Barry Ferguson, Callum Davidson and Neil McCann - none of whom was born when Jim Leighton cut his football teeth.

The 40-year-old Leighton spared Scotland a calamity to compound their World Cup embarrassment by Morocco with a stunning save from a first-half header by Edgaras Jankauskas.

"We dug in and got a clean sheet and that is always something to savour," Leighton said. "But the game was as frustrating for me as everyone in the team. I think 0-0 looked on the cards for a long time.

"Lithuania are not a bad side but the pitch made things difficult for us. We had to lump the ball forward for that was all that was possible on that surface."

None of Scotland's other hardened campaigners matched Leighton's contribution, and while Brown stood by his selection, the positive impact of the substitutes clearly provided food for thought.

Brown now faces some tough choices before Scotland resume their rivalry with Estonia in Edinburgh on 10 October and tackle the Faroe Islands at Aberdeen five days later. They are the first of four consecutive home games in Group Nine, against the nations expected to prop up the table, so anything less than six points would leave the Scots facing an uphill task to qualify.

His dilemma centres on whether to view this performance as a bad one- off - like the infamous 0-0 draw with Estonia in Monaco - by players good enough to reach the last two major tournaments, or to interpret their failure to force a single save from Lithuania's goalkeeper as symptomatic of a team out of time. For the moment, one suspects, he will want to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Nevertheless, if grafting a chunk of youthful vitality on to a veteran core smacked of compromise, no one could accuse Brown of taking the soft option. "I think we were quite brave to try to freshen things up after half-time," he said. "Had we lost a goal after the youngsters had gone on, we'd have been heavily criticised for not leaving the experienced players on to see the job through.

"All three enhanced their chances of starting the next game. Home fixtures on good surfaces like the ones at Tynecastle and Pittodrie, that's the time to blood these guys. I thought we looked brighter after they came on."

Ferguson, 20, eased himself into a robust midfield contest, always playing with his head up and creating Scotland's only half-chance. Unfortunately for them, a Lithuanian defender had a yard's start on Ally McCoist and averted the danger.

The 22-year-old Davidson, cautioned for a reckless challenge within two minutes of coming on, settled well and looked a natural left wingback. Which, of course, he is compared with the right-footed Dailly.

"I think Callum was out to make an impact. His challenge was over enthusiastic rather than malicious.

"The boys that came on did well but ideally it is better to introduce them at home. I am aware of the need to freshen the team. The group is wide open and we have to go on and assert ourselves."

As for McCann, a relative old stager of 24, Brown used him through the middle, despite his origins as a winger and the fact that Scotland were crying out for width. All three injected much needed pace into proceedings.

It is to such players, as well as to Dailly and the indisposed Jackie McNamara and Craig Burley, that Scotland must look as their men for the millennium. In the shorter term, the priority is to improve on a record of only one goal from open play in five matches.

Brown said pointedly: "Ronaldo couldn't have had a good game for us with the amount of service McCoist and [Kevin] Gallacher received."

Gary McAllister, close to a comeback with Coventry, would bring variety to their attacks, though even he might have struggled to assert his passing prowess against vigorous opponents on a pitch better suited to Sri Lankan spinners.

"There's no question we were disappointing," the manager admitted. "However, if you think it's easy hear you show a lack of respect to Lithuania, who are gaining in credibility all the time. Remember they were third behind Romania and Ireland in the World Cup group with 17 points.

"Until this section settles down, we won't know whether it's a point gained or two lost. We didn't deserve all three but if we were a club side who'd come here and drawn, we'd be thinking `we'll finish them off at home'."

Results from Cyprus and Iceland, not to mention Sweden, put Scotland's endeavours in a more favourable light. And, as Brown pointed out, neither the Czech Republic nor Bosnia will be confident of winning in Vilnius.

LITHUANIA (1-2-5-2): Stauce (MSV Duisburg); Baltusnikas (Zalgiris Vilnius); Zvirgzdauskas (Polonia Warsaw), Skerla (PSV Eindhoven); Skarbalius (Brondby), Sugzda (Rot-Weiss Erfurt), R Zutautas (Alania Vladikavkaz), Preiksaitis (MOKS Stomil), Semberas (Dynamo Moscow); Jankauskas (Club Brugge), Mikulenas (Polonia Warsaw). Substitutes: Buitkus (Baltika Kaliningrad) for Zugzda, 62; Slekys (FC Wil) for Mikulenas, 90.

SCOTLAND (3-4-1-2): Leighton (Aberdeen); Hendry (Rangers), Elliott (Leicester), Boyd (Celtic); Calderwood (Tottenham), Lambert (Celtic), Collins (Everton), Dailly (Blackburn); Jackson (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn), McCoist (Kilmarnock). Substitutes: B Ferguson (Rangers) for Jackson, 56; Davidson (Blackburn) for Calderwood, 71; McCann (Heart of Midlothian) for McCoist, 81.

Referee: C Zotta (Romania).

Bookings: Lithuania: Zemberas, Skarbalius. Scotland: Gallacher, Davidson

Attendance: 4,800.

Man of the match: Leighton.