Fletcher sees cause for hope in the gloom

Scotland 0 Belarus 1
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The Independent Online

Darren Fletcher shared the frustration of a 51,000 crowd that Scotland, maddeningly true to their traditions, had lost a match the nation assumed they would win. But the Manchester United midfielder brought much-needed perspective to the post-mortem, projecting beyond the Group Five finale in Slovenia on Wednesday to Euro 2008.

On BBC Scotland's phone-in, a caller was, incredibly, demanding the sacking of Walter Smith. To Fletcher, the very fact that Scotland had put themselves in contention for a play-off was a cause for optimism.

"What you can say is that we gave ourselves a chance of qualifying," he argued. "The beginning of the group was disastrous, yet we gave ourselves a glimmer of hope.

"Unfortunately, it hasn't happened. But the main aim was to get the pride back and look forward to the next European Championships. That was the long-term plan, and I think we're still on track."

Christian Dailly, 10 years Fletcher's senior, offered a different emphasis. Scotland would not, he insisted, treat Slovenia as an experimental fixture. "It's still part of our World Cup group," the West Ham player said. "People expect us to go out there, compete and do our best."

Pressed as to whether the defeat by Belarus was a "reality check" for Scotland, Dailly maintained that they had neither become carried away by the much-trumpeted feel-good factor nor believed victory was a formality. "We never thought we were Brazil. Nobody thinks they're greater than they are; that's not the Scottish mentality. It's just a disappointment to see it end like this."

Scotland paid heavily for an appalling first-half display. After a storming opening 20 seconds, it was downhill all the way. Dailly's brief was to shield the back line; the pity was that it did not extend to man-marking Alexander Hleb. Arsenal's summer signing looked as if he had wandered in from a park kick-about, socks halfway down shins on spindly legs. Yet his ability to find space, and exploit it with precise passing, gave Belarus a dimension Scotland did not, and perhaps do not, possess.

Hleb's influence was enhanced by Scotland's tendency to defend too deep, possibly the result of doubts over David Weir's lack of pace, and that enlarged the hole he operated in. At the other end, Kenny Miller was isolated. Belarus, without a competitive away win in a decade, scored early after a deflection off Dailly ran kindly for the Serie A-based Vasily Kutuzov. That simplified Anatoly Baidachny's tactical approach and forced the Scots to endure what they put Norway through in Oslo.

Smith could have changed tack sooner but waited until half-time to start fine-tuning. Scotland, lucky to come in only one down, began defending higher up the park. Dailly switched to right-back, Shaun Maloney went on as a right-sided attacker and Lee McCulloch came inside to support Miller.

What the manager called "a hell of a disparity" between the halves was soon evident, Scotland's urgency being almost tangible. Chances flowed, but bad luck, wayward finishing and vital, if somewhat fortuitous, saves by Vasily Khomutovsky preserved Belarus' lead.

Scotland have had a proud home record in World Cup qualifiers, commencing this series with one defeat in 35 matches since 1965. In the qualifying for France '98, Craig Brown's squad won five out of five. The total of defeats has been trebled during the current series, reflecting the disarray into which Berti Vogts dragged them and underlining the magnitude of the task facing Smith.

For all that, there has undeniably been progress under the former Rangers and Everton manager. Last month's triumph in Norway, and the passing game that earned it, proved as much, while perhaps fuelling expectations to an unrealistic level. They exposed Age Hareide's side as a crude long-ball outfit, and the Norwegians' progress to the play-offs on Saturday merely compounded Scottish anguish about what might have been.

Smith, while pledging to examine what went wrong against Belarus and honest enough not to rule out his own culpability, must look ahead. In the short term, that means Slovenia. Might he use the occasion to try something different, either in terms of personnel or systems? "I don't think so. We'll just keep going the way we're going."

However, the suspension of his captain, Barry Ferguson, and Maloney's confident cameo make it inevitable that Scotland will present an altered image. Like the vast rainbow over Hampden, Germany 2006 has vanished from their horizon, but the future starts in Celje.

Scotland (4-1-4-1): Gordon (Hearts); Alexander (Preston), Weir (Everton), Pressley (Hearts), Murray (Rangers); Dailly (West Ham); Hartley (Hearts), Fletcher (Manchester United), Ferguson (Rangers), McCulloch (Wigan); Miller (Wolves). Substitute: Maloney (Celtic) for Murray, h-t.

Belarus (4-2-3-1): Khomutovsky (Steaua Bucharest); Korytko (Terek Chechenskaya Respublika), Tarlovsky (Fakel Voronezh), Orlovsky (Arsenal Kiev), Lavrik (Amkar Perm); Kovba (Krylya Sovetov Samara), Kulchy (Tom Tomsk); Kalachev (Khimki), Hleb (Arsenal), Bulyga (Krylya Sovetov Samara); Kutuzov (Sampdoria). Substitute: Sascheka (Halmstad) for Bulyga, 89.

Referee: Z Szabo (Hungary).

Bookings: Scotland: McCulloch, Ferguson. Belarus: Korytko, Lavrik.

Man of the match: Hleb.

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