Future is bright as Scots leave a mark

Last Wednesday, the quiet Slovenian town of Celje joined Wembley and Argentina on the list of accomplished failures. Walter Smith's side finished their Group Five campaign with a stylish 3-0 win away to a team that had reached the World Cup finals of 2002 and Euro 2004.

Eye-catching goals from Darren Fletcher, James McFadden and Paul Hartley hinted at a brighter future. Already, Scotland are now looking towards the qualifying road to Euro 2008. However, what made the success in Celje even more remarkable is that it was achieved without the man generally recognised as Smith's best player, Barry Ferguson.

The Rangers and Scotland captain was suspended after being booked against Belarus which ended his country's hopes. Yet without him, it was undeniable that the Scotland midfield looked more accomplished as Fletcher, Hartley and Nigel Quashie taunted Slovenia.

Ferguson, who will be back today for Rangers' tricky trip to Dundee United in the Scottish Premier League ahead of the Champions' League contest with Artmedia Bratislava, must be slightly unnerved at how little he was missed.

"We passed the ball around well, but it will be good to have Barry back," insisted Hearts midfielder Hartley. Smith feels the midfield is the best part of his team but the Scotland manager's problem could be that, like England, he may have to weigh up whether including his talisman will disturb the balance.

Fletcher, especially, played with greater authority in Ferguson's absence and launched the successful night with a searing 30-yard opening goal. The clever build-up to the audacious lobs from McFadden and Hartley underlined that Smith's decision to go with 3-5-1-1could prove more beneficial than his favoured flat back four.

Smith gathered 11 points from his seven games and while that could not repair the damage done by Berti Vogts at the start of the campaign, Scotland now have an improved reputation to take into the next mission. "We improved with each game and now we are really looking forward to the European Championships," stated Hartley.

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