Brown places emphasis on forward power

Confident coach insists on positive outlook against Latvians despite absentee list
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The Independent Football

Craig Brown plans to accentuate the positive with his team selection and tactics against Latvia here tonight as he strives to maintain Scotland's unbeaten record in the opening games of qualifying tournaments under his management.

Craig Brown plans to accentuate the positive with his team selection and tactics against Latvia here tonight as he strives to maintain Scotland's unbeaten record in the opening games of qualifying tournaments under his management.

The start of the long haul to Japan and South Korea in 2002 finds Brown launching his fourth such quest since succeeding Andy Roxburgh. Having come away with a clean sheet and at least a point from Finland, Austria and Lithuania at the outset of the previous three World Cup or European Championship campaigns, he is trusting in a more adventurous approach to set the Scots up and running in Group Six.

When encountering the more powerful nations Brown has tended to match up to their systems. The ploy helped secure prestigious away victories over Germany, England and the Republic of Ireland over the past 18 months, as well as a draw in the Netherlands. Now, at 60, he has switched horses.

He remained confident yesterday that Latvia's English coach, Gary Johnson, will operate a strict 4-4-2 line-up but said: "We'll play the formation we want and let them worry about us. We used to favour 3-5-2 but I'm more inclined to go with 3-4-3 here and try to put pressure on their back four."

The change in approach does not represent a road-to-Damascus conversion, merely a belief on Brown's part that the personnel currently available to him are better suited to an attacking strategy rather than one based on the primacy of preventing the opposition from scoring.

"Latvia have certainly improved since we beat them at Celtic Park to reach France 98 but I think we're a better side, too. I know we've lost (John) Collins and (Gary) McAllister, but Barry Ferguson is emerging as a replacement for one or both. We were functional and efficient then, whereas now we've got more flair going forward, plus a nice balance between left and right-sided players and of youth and experience."

Don Hutchison, whose vision and versatility are central to Brown's new approach, was laid low yesterday by a throat infection but has been prescribed anti-biotics and is expected to play. His five goals in 10 internationals make it likely he will partner Billy Dodds up front, with Neil McCann raiding from the left, although he could slot in alongside Ferguson in midfield.

Not for the first time, the right of midfield is a problem for Brown. In the absence of Craig Burley, he may opt for David Weir's defensive qualities there, especially since Latvia have a speedy left-winger in Andrei Rubins.

Brown was clearly surprised that Johnson asked to be allowed to watch his squad's training session but decided to grant the former Watford youth coach's request because the Scots had rehearsed all their set-piece routines earlier in the week.

Latvia stand only 80th in the world rankings published by Fifa - 60 places behind Scotland - and have won just once in nine matches under Johnson. Yet Brown watched their solitary victory, 1-0 against a Finland side that included Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen, and was impressed.

The 44-year-old Johnson has himself ditched Latvia's cautious 4-5-1 formation for 4-4-2 in an attempt to exploit the attacking talent at his disposal. Johnson describes Southampton's Marian Pahars, Rubins (whom he has dubbed "the Latvian Ryan Giggs") and Andrei Stolcers as the "quickest forward line in Europe" - and Brown is not arguing.

The Scotland manager also points to Latvia's victories in Norway and Greece during qualifying for Euro 2000 as evidence of their capacity to create an upset. The Norwegians recovered from that 3-1 humbling to win their group, but as Brown warns, it is rare for a team to lose their opening game and go on to the finals.

In the last three World Cups only one European nation has qualified after starting with a defeat: Austria (1990), the Netherlands ('94) and Bulgaria ('98). A draw will therefore be Brown's minimum requirement - preferably with Belgium and Croatia doing likewise in Brussels - though defeat would carry the slender consolation that neither of the other main contenders could then regard three points in Riga as a formality.

LATVIA (4-4-2; probable): Kolinko (Skonto Riga); Laizans, Zemlinskis or Lobanovs, Stepanovs, Blagonadezdins (all Skonto Riga); Bleidelis (Southampton), Ivanovs (Shinnik Yaroslavl), Astafjevs (Bristol Rovers), Rubins (Skonto Riga); Pahars (Southampton), Stolcers (Spartak Moscow).

SCOTLAND (3-4-3; probable): Sullivan (Tottenham); Elliott (Leicester), Hendry (Coventry), Dailly (Blackburn); Weir (Everton), Cameron (Hearts), Ferguson (Rangers), Davidson (Leicester); Dodds (Rangers), Hutchison (Sunderland), McCann (Rangers).

Referee: A Schluchter (Switzerland).

GROUP SIX FIXTURES

Today: Latvia v Scotland; Belgium v Croatia. Sat 7 Oct: San Marino v Scotland. Sat 7 Oct or Sun 8 Oct: Latvia v Belgium (date tbc). Wed 11 Oct: Croatia v Scotland. Wed 15 Nov: San Marino v Latvia. Wed 14 Feb: Belgium v San Marino. Sat 24 March: Croatia v Latvia; Scotland v Belgium. Wed 28 March: Scotland v San Marino. Wed 25 April: Latvia v San Marino. Tue 2 June: Croatia v San Marino; Belgium v Latvia. Sat 6 June: Latvia v Croatia; San Marino v Belgium. Sat 1 Sept: Scotland v Croatia. Wed 5 Sept: San Marino v Croatia; Belgium v Scotland. Sat 6 Oct: Croatia v Belgium; Scotland v Latvia.

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