Buoyed to beat boys from Brazil
Scotland's magical midfield has convinced Levein that attack is now the best form of defence
Sunday 27 March 2011
Around a table at Hampden, Craig Levein veers from hopefulness to anxiety, and it is possible to see the limitations that make internationalmanagement so dependent on resourcefulness. As he talks about how his Scotland players should consider victory over Brazil today within reach of their imagination, the optimism seems helpless in the face of some franker considerations.
There are no credible alternatives to Kenny Miller for Scotland's frontline – with Steven Fletcher having withdrawn himself from consideration in a curt text message that confirmed the broken nature of his relationship with Levein – and the choices at centre-back range from solid but limited performers like Gary Caldwell and Christophe Berra to young tyros such as DannyWilson and Grant Hanley.
It is in midfield that Scotland are strong, and Levein is unabashed in likening Charlie Adam to Glenn Hoddle, or describing the Blackpool midfielder as the best of his kind – a player who can pass the ball with imagination and variety – in the Premier League. His praise of Darren Fletcher, who misses Scotland's friendly against Brazil at the Emirates, is also eloquent, and it is easy to be swayed by the enthusiasm of his mood as he explains the 4-1-4-1 formation (with Adam at the base of midfield, Miller up front and four dynamic players in between) that he is convinced can allow Scotland the means to express themselves on the international stage.
In little more than a year, the job has examined Levein's priorities, but also his judgement. It was only last October that he decided the best hope of earning a result in the Czech Republic was to play without any strikers in a 4-6-0 formation that drew disdain after a 1-0 defeat. Levein, still finding his way in the position, believed his squad to lack the wherewithal to be bold or ambitious against most opponents.
It was in containment, and some fundamental values like industry and discipline, that he saw the only hope for his side. But the blossoming of Adam; the continuing improvement of Kris Commons, James Morrison, Graeme Dorrans, Phil Bardsley and James McArthur; and the accomplishment of Alan Hutton, Scott Brown, Fletcher, Miller, Craig Gordonand Allan McGregor, caused Levein to reassess his beliefs.
Now, as he prepares to face a Brazil side that still consider virtuosity and panache to be a birthright, he believes victory to be achievable, and prepared by taking his players to La Manga, in Spain, for four days of light training and bonding. He is trying to create the kind of spirit and unity that is self-fulfilling, so that the players' attitude to each other and their obligations to the national team become powerful motivations. He seems saddened by Steven Fletcher's decision to remove himself from contention (after not featuring against the Czechs then criticising Levein in a newspaper article), but answers questions about the Wolves striker by referring to the commitment of Bardsley, who used his dad's nationality to qualify.
Scotland's history with Brazil carries the angst that has become second nature to a country forced to come to terms with the decline of its footballers and its national team. In losing 4-1 at the 1982 World Cup, it is David Narey's stinging shot from 18 yards that is still celebrated, while the most recent meeting between the two sides, which Scotland lost 2-1 at France 1998 through a Tom Boyd own goal, is considered glorious failure.
That sense of plucky defeatism only undermines the conviction Levein is seeking from his players, but this Brazil side has the means to leave his assertiveness looking hollow. David Luiz and Ramires are in form at Chelsea, while Mano Menezes, the coach, can replace the troubled Kaka with Lucas Rodrigues da Silva Moura, an 18-year-old whose buyout clause at São Paulo is £66m, the biggest in Brazil. Sandro, the Tottenham midfielder, and Neymar, the brilliant young striker who remains coveted by Roman Abramovich, will also play.
But having once been certain that a relentlessly defensive approach was his only option, Levein is now undaunted. It is in drawing his players together, and leading them to a sense of certainty, that he sees his best hope now. "Craig isn't the type of manager I'd like to cross and the other boys feel that way too," says Caldwell, the Wigan defender. "He certainly has the respect of everyone."
Scotland v Brazil is on ITV1 today, kick-off 2pm
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