Scotland touched down here in Eurasia last night intent on pushing the boundaries of their Euro 2008 ambitions to fulfilment and insisting that they have the nerve to get over the qualifying line. They face Georgia tomorrow needing four points from two games – the last is against Italy at Hampden next month – to be certain of reaching the finals.
Fabio Grosso, who scored Italy's World Cup-winning penalty in last year's final, suggested yesterday that the Scots will "bottle" the challenge. "It may be difficult for them to finish off the job because they are not used to being in first position," he said.
Nonsense, responded Scotland's assistant coach, Roy Aitken, and their goalkeeper, Craig Gordon. "The players have answered every challenge up to now," said Aitken of a side who have won eight of their 10 group matches to top Group B this morning. "The boys are ready for this."
Aitken added: "In the dressing room before every match, they understand they need to give their best. They are not blasé about it. They are gallus [full of spirited swagger]. It's not arrogant, it's belief and desire."
In last Saturday's 3-1 win over Ukraine, Scotland were without the Celtic pair, midfielder Paul Hartley and defender Gary Caldwell, and their main goalkeeping backup, Alan McGregor. Several more players have been added to the missing list since. Lee McCulloch, who scored on Saturday, is suspended, as is striker Garry O'Connor, while Scott Brown and Alan Hutton are both absent injured. The latter pair were both outstanding at the weekend and will be missed.
But it is illustrative of confidence within the camp that none of these losses are being bemoaned too loud or too long. Rather, Aitken chose to look forward to the return to the international stage of Darren Fletcher. " He's so consistent, one of our best players," Aitken said.
Gordon echoed the message that Scotland's growing band of players at elite level creates a virtuous circle for the national team. "We've got a lot of players performing at a high level for their clubs these days," said the man who moved from Heart of Midlothian to Sunderland for £9m in the summer. "They're in the Premier League, the Champions League, especially those with Celtic and Rangers, in high pressure games most weeks. And we know that we can deal with the pressure we're under with Scotland now. "Reuse content