Brown looks to stifle slick Croatians

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The Independent Online

Croatia's capital is not a place where the vocabulary of war is used lightly, but when Miroslav Blazevic hailed Scotland yesterday as "a proud nation that always fights to the last", Craig Brown nodded agreement in a manner which indicated a steely resolve to prove in the Maksimir Stadium tonight that they lead Group Six on merit.

Croatia's capital is not a place where the vocabulary of war is used lightly, but when Miroslav Blazevic hailed Scotland yesterday as "a proud nation that always fights to the last", Craig Brown nodded agreement in a manner which indicated a steely resolve to prove in the Maksimir Stadium tonight that they lead Group Six on merit.

Blazevic, Croatia's veteran coach, had combined with Brown for a press conference at which they put on a double act more redolent of the Chuckle Brothers than rivals for a place in the World Cup finals. Amid the exchange ofembraces, quips, plaudits and the odd red herring, Blazevic declared himself "very afraid" of the Scots. Brown returned the compliment by describing the Croatian team as "second only to France in Europe".

The Scotland manager said later that he did not believe his counterpart was genuinely fearful, merely trying it on psychologically. Yet he stood by his praise of Croatia, bracketing them alongside Italy and the Netherlands.

Brown is not averse to playing mind games himself, of course. Close scrutiny of the countries' respective records suggests that Blazevic should indeed regard Scotland as dangerous opponents, as well as raising doubts as to whether Croatia are currently the force Brown believes them to be.

True, they finished third in the World Cup two and a half years ago and won more matches in a month at the finals than Scotland have in eight visits. However, they also came third in their last qualifying campaign, for Euro 2000, and may be without their one proven finisher at international level Davor Suker tonight.

Scotland have their customary injury crisis but have overcome similar adversity to build a sequence of seven away fixtures without defeat. They go into the game buoyed by the knowledge of victories in Bremen, Sarajevo, London and Dublin over the past 18 months. Brown, in fact, has lost just once in 13 World Cup qualifiers, away to Sweden in 1997, since being confirmed in his post seven years ago.

While the kidology may have been as much on his part as Blazevic's, Brown was not ex-aggerating when he compared the Scots' task to their defeat in Gothenberg and with the 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic in Prague during the last European Championship series.

The departure of four members of Saturday's line-up in San Marino has reduced Scotland's selection options as well as their capacity to spring a tactical surprise. Billy Dodds, who flew home on Monday to attend the birth of his first child, will not be returning. Brown was already "disposed" to give Paul Dickov his first start in attack, with Kevin Gallacher his probable partner and Allan Johnston on the bench.

Tom Boyd looks set for his 67th cap in the hope that his vast experience can help to subdue Robert Jarni's left-sided surges. In the other wing-back position, Callum Davidson's arguably superior defensive qualities may win him the vote ahead of Gary Naysmith.

The arrival of the versatile Craig Burley after treatment for a back problem at least gives Brown a degree of choice. The Derby player could be deployed in the role he prefers, supporting attacks from midfield, or as the anchor man with responsibility for stifling the supply from Robert Prosinecki to Croatia's forwards.

Remembering how Prosinecki, in tandem with Zvonimir Boban, helped Yugoslavia give his Under-21s "a real doing" in 1989, Brown admitted he may even send on Gary Holt, a specialist marker, if the former Red Star Belgrade player were to operate just behind the strikers. "Prosinecki never was quick and when I saw him in their practice match on Sunday, he looked to be labouring," said Brown. "But his passing was unbelievable."

Blazevic had earlier stated that Suker had a 60-40 chance of playing. Brown's hunch is that such talk is aimed at drumming up a crowd and that he cannot be fit after a month of inactivity. The West Ham striker's tally of 42 goals from 58 caps would make his absence an occasion for turning cartwheels.

"If Suker were fully fit Croatia would be scary," said Brown. "Their next highest scorer isn't in double figures. But I know Paul Ince rates Alen Boksic the best striker he has played with. They are still a very good side."

Boksic gave Colin Hendry a torrid time in Middlesbrough's opening-day win at Coventry, the last club game in which the Scotland captain played. Davidson has been similarly kicking his heels, and Scotland must trust that any lack of match-sharpness is not exposed in a contest which Brown characterised as "the most difficult in our group".

CROATIA (3-5-2; probable): Pavlovic (LASK Linz); R Kovac (Bayer Leverkusen), Stimac (West Ham), Simic (Internazionale); Saric (Panathinaikos), Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Prosinecki (Standard Liege), N Kovac (Hamburg), Jarni (Las Palmas); Boksic (Middlesbrough), Balaban (Dinamo Zagreb).

SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Sullivan (Tottenham); Hendry (Coventry), Elliott (Leicester), Weir (Everton); Boyd (Celtic), Burley (Derby), Hutchison (Sunderland), Cameron (Hearts), Davidson (Leicester); Gallacher (Newcastle), Dickov (Manchester City).

Referee: G Veissiere (France).

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