007 call gives Scots licence to thrill nation

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The Independent Football

Sir Sean Connery phoned Alex McLeish yesterday and wished the Scotland manager well for today's match with Italy, the 12th and final qualifier in an extraordinary Euro 2008 campaign. James Bond himself would struggle to escape from the kind of trap that the Scots were placed in when the draw was made – Italy, France and Ukraine were the headline acts in Group B – yet there is nothing but optimism flooding from the Scotland camp today, joining a nation's flood-tide of hope.

So what did 007 say to McLeish? "He's given me some good words, which I might use in the dressing room," McLeish said. Asked to reveal what those words were, it is exaggerating only slightly to say McLeish cocked an eyebrow à la another Bond. But he certainly did his finest Connery impression as he responded: "Itsh a sheecret."

He added: "Usually I try to find a few words that they haven't heard before to encourage them. This time I think it'll be more a case of keeping the reins on. They're raring to go."

This match has a magnitude within Scotland that outsiders would find hard to credit. It has dominated the country's agenda for weeks. You could populate a forest with the pullouts. Massive outdoor parties have been organised around the country to coincide with the 5pm kick-off. Landlord associations reckon they could sell an extra five million pints. And more when the game starts.

So this really is the biggest of deals, a once in a generation game, not just because a win would secure the first trip to a major championships in a decade, but because the size of the task at the outset was so daunting.

James McFadden, the talisman striker who may not start today, was asked this week how he felt when the balls came out the bag. "I thought 'I'm only 22, there'll be other campaigns'." A win will see Scotland through. A defeat will put them out. A draw would leave them needing France to lose in Ukraine on Wednesday. So to be a Scotland fan this morning is to stand on the edge. Ranking, status, man-for-man pedigree and, quite frankly, sporting logic, says on the edge of a disappointment.

Italy, world champions, have lost just one game so far, in France. And as the Azzurri showed when they went to last year's World Cup mired in scandal, domestic turmoil can inure their resolve.

But this morning, with a floodlit kick-off at a packed Hampden Park, don't try to convince the Tartan Army of that. The edge on which they stand offers the chance not of a fall, but of a leap of faith. They and millions of others will be turning up and tuning in, in hope and expectation. There are arguments that Scotland's cause is far from futile. They have a 100 per cent home record, including wins over France and Ukraine. Italy have never won on Scottish soil, with a defeat (in 1965) and two draws in the ledger. Neither have the Azzurri shown the impenetrability they had in winning the World Cup.

"They're only human," said McLeish, who believes he has the men with the motivation and mettle to pull off one of the great shocks. "We've thought about our approach, our formation and our tactics and we feel comfortable in how we're going to do it. We're positive about the outcome, whichever way we set up. We know the strengths of the Italian team. We have to try and nullify those in order for our own boys to play to their own strengths."

McLeish said yesterday he had already picked his team and told the players. The back line selects itself. Craig Gordon, Sunderland's £9m summer buy, will be in goal. Alan Hutton, 22, is a Rangers right-back who is maturing rapidly, attracting interest from the Premier League. His club-mate, David Weir, 37, is the wise old ballast alongside Celtic's Stephen McManus, 25, while Gary Naysmith, 29, will be at left-back.

From what McLeish has said about needing to thwart Italy as a basis on which to build hope, it seems likely he will deploy Celtic's Paul Hartley in front of the defence, and have a four-man midfield behind a lone striker. Celtic's Scott Brown and Rangers' Barry Ferguson and Lee McCulloch seem certain to start, which leaves one midfield place and one striker. Darren Fletcher in midfield and Derby's Kenny Miller up front looks increasingly likely, leaving McFadden, the hero of Paris, on the bench. Alternative options are McFadden for Fletcher, or McFadden for Miller.

Will McLeish spend his pre-match talk mainly on tactics, or on conveying a sense of history? "A bit of both," he says. "The players have been successful in this campaign because of their application and work ethic. They know that if we slacken off then we're not the same. We have to work harder than Italy because they use the ball with more economy than we do. And we need to keep our concentration the whole match.

"The players just want to get going now. There's a buzz about them, a spring in the step. They've been pretty mature about the whole frenzy. They understand what it means to Scotland. These occasions don't come around too often. I live for them too. It's a privilege to be involved in this sport at this level. We've got to look at it as a fantastic challenge, and not a threat. That's why I've urged the players not to fear failure, and to play their hearts out."