Three points were dropped against the Czech Republic on Friday night, but something more precious seemed to be discarded in Prague. It was the notion that Scotland might still retainthe ambition and the wherewithal to challenge even a side from thesecond tier of European nations.
In reasoning that Scotland's best, perhaps only, opportunity to earn a result in the Euro 2012 qualifier was to line up in a 4-6-0 formation that emphasised a narrow reliance on stifling defensive play, Craig Levein yielded to an unenviable truth. The decline of the national team has finally removed the last sense of enterprise, or even the ability to play the game in an aspiring manner.
Scotland's away record was already dismal – it was seven games on the road since they last scored – and Levein opted to leave Kenny Miller, a striker in the midst of a rich run of form, on the bench and start with a formation that posted Jamie Mackie,the QPR forward making his debut, on the right wing, Steven Naismith on the left wing, with James Morrison and Graham Dorrans acting, at least putatively, as inside-forwards.
Darren Fletcher and Gary Caldwell sat in front of the back four and attacking instincts were suppressed, as though they might be treacherous. The blunt, impulsive reaction would be to condemn Levein for a display so lacking in the most basic values that Petr Cech was not required to make a save. But then Levein was merely coming to the same conclusion as previous Scotland managers such as Walter Smith (whose Rangers team were similarly defensive at Old Trafford last month) and Alex McLeish, that there is not enough talent available to play an expansive game and so results have to be ground out with heartless resolve.
Levein was only adopting a more rigid, and disconsolate, approach. "I have no regrets about the way we went about it," he said after the 1-0 defeat. "I still say it was the best way to win the game. You can't say it worked, because we lost – and it's extremely disappointing the goal came from a set-piece. The easy assumption is that any other system would have brought victory."
If Levein is the scapegoat for anything, it is the decades of neglect that saw Scotland take the emergence of talented players for granted, then the SPL become enthralled with buying workaday footballers from abroad. Scotland have a win, a draw and a loss in Group I so far, but Spain visit Hampden on Tuesday and another reality will be exposed.
It is the way that two teams playing the same game can be so disconnected. We think of the world champions as the clearest expression of a style of play that is distinct in its beauty as much as its effectiveness; while Scotland are a team of grim perseverance. We might evendescribe this qualifying match as an encounter between idealism and pragmatism, or at least an example of the way qualities can be segregated.
"They are world-class players, [and] it's a different style of football," says Christophe Berra, the Wolves defender. "It's not like the Premier League [and] going to places like Stoke on a cold Tuesday, getting high balls thrown into the box. That's why [British] football is exciting, it's crash and bang. The Spanish league isslower-paced, more technical, [with] more passing. But if a team sets out to defend and puts 10 behind the ball, it is very difficult to break down."
Scotland are left to rely on this approach that seems to kill the ambition of the game. Levein says he will employ a different formation against Spain, but the strategy will be to smother and nullify. It is all that is left, which in itself is despairing.