Gordon Strachan and his Scotland side must convert their promise into points against Georgia at Ibrox this afternoon.
Group D is difficult but surmountable and even if Scotland resign themselves to not catching world champions Germany – they lost 2-1 at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund last month – they still have a good chance of second place ahead of Poland and the Republic of Ireland.
Strachan has very obviously lifted Scottish football since he replaced Craig Levein in January last year, bringing the energy, enthusiasm and optimism which have characterised his Scotland and coaching career. They have recorded some good results, including two wins over Croatia – one in Zagreb when their hosts were fourth in the Fifa rankings – and have also won in Poland.
But qualification for a tournament, their first since 1998, is what Scotland is demanding and only a good win today can take them in that direction. Strachan has lifted the players, as well as benefiting from new additions such as Watford winger Ikechi Anya – who scored a fine equaliser in the narrow defeat to Germany – but he knows he needs them to deliver for him this afternoon.
“The players make me feel confident,” Strachan said yesterday. “They make me feel good and they determine the mood of the coaches most of the time. They have satisfied me this week. They have made me happy; watching good players training hard, training intensely and asking questions, which is good.”
Strachan recognised that Scotland have form and momentum on their side, after a series of good performances, but that it would not count for much if they cannot win today, with a far harder game to follow against Poland in Warsaw on Tuesday.
“We are in a good place at the moment,” Strachan said. “It is not just the training – it has been the performances over the last year that have allowed us to feel good about ourselves with the understanding that, after watching Georgia, we are playing against a good side, who can count themselves unlucky not to get anything from the first game, beaten only by a wonder goal by Aiden McGeady.”
The Republic of Ireland beat Georgia in their first game, thanks to McGeady’s last-minute brilliance, and today they have what should be an easier game: Gibraltar at home. The Republic have not always excelled against teams they should beat – in recent years they have lost 5-2 to Cyprus, beaten San Marino just 2-1 and Malta 3-2.
Their manager, Martin O’Neill, is demanding maximum focus and application, knowing his side cannot afford to let their concentration slip. “I do have a little smile to myself because we’re not good enough to be complacent,” O’Neill said yesterday. “We know Gibraltar are not expected to beat us and the emphasis is on us to win the game, but we’re certainly not good enough to think we’re going to win it easily.
“Traditionally, we are not known as phenomenal goalscorers, so we have to create some chances and we have to take them. We have to find a way to win the game.”