Fletcher issues rallying cry to rattle French

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The Independent Online

The last and only time that Scotland have beaten France in seven meetings in the past 50 years was in a World Cup qualifier on a wet and miserable night at Hampden in March 1989. The coach got stuck in traffic on the way from the Gleneagles base and the only mobile phone on the bus - Roy Aitken's brick-sized device - was used to summon a police escort. The team arrived with minutes to spare, not agitated exactly but with their blood up and an added sense of urgency.

As Craig Brown, then the assistant manager, recalled: "The boys just threw on their kit and got on with it. Guys like Roy and Alex McLeish got their sleeves rolled up and got into the French that night. We rattled their cage."

Against the hot favourites from across the channel, Ally McCoist and Mo Johnston - the latter scored both goals in the 2-0 win - got particularly involved with the pony-tailed defender Luc Sonor, who had his hair pulled more than once, and then his leg, after telling Johnston he was "a wee diddy". "Well tell him the wee diddy's going to be playing at the World Cup next summer," McCoist piped up.

Times have changed, but not all that much in that France are odds-on chances to inflict a first Group B defeat on their hosts, who have so far excelled in beating the Faroe Islands and Lithuania.

So, again, the clarion call - from the manager, Walter Smith, the veteran Alan Hansen, McCoist himself (now part of Smith's coaching set-up) and umpteen others is "Be brave, get at 'em". Denying France, especially Thierry Henry, the time and space to weave their magic will be crucial.

Against that backdrop, the game plan as revealed yesterday by Darren Fletcher was instructive. "We won't be dirty, but...we will go in there and try to win the ball," he said.

The Manchester United midfielder added: "It does not have to be a physical performance but we cannot just stand off them and let them play because they will punish us. We have to get in amongst them. Tackling is a part of football."

Neither Smith nor his France counterpart, Raymond Domenech, will make a final decision on their sides until this morning, although barring last-minute hiccups, Smith is expected to hand a lone striker's role to Everton's James McFadden. A four-man back line will be supplemented with Celtic's Gary Caldwell. Smith will deploy Barry Ferguson against Patrick Vieira while Paul Hartley pushes forward, and two wide men will look to counter-attack.

If there is a ray of hope for Scotland, it might lie in injury concerns over key Frenchmen. The striker Sidney Govou is missing, and Louis Saha's fitness is uncertain, hence the call-up of Nicolas Anelka, who has not played for France this year and is yet to score a Premiership goal for Bolton. William Gallas is a doubt in the centre of defence, which could mean Jean-Alain Boumsong (mediocre at best when last in Scotland, playing for Rangers) will deputise. Vieira is also not considered fully fit but should play.

Smith is under no illusions, but knows that the feelgood factor among the Tartan Army is buoying nation and players alike. "A friend of mine, an English friend, said to me 'you're the only country in the world who could not qualify for a tournament then, two months after the tournament finishes, play the team who reached the final, and still think you can beat them'. We're Scottish, we've always got to be optimistic."

Asked if he would settle for a draw, he added: "We'll try to win. And, if we get a draw, I think we'll be quite happy." His laughter said he would bite anyone's hand off for a point.

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