Sir Alex Ferguson has been on the phone and there is a pile of nine DVDs of Czech Republic matches to watch. "I go from being here most of the time," says Craig Levein of his workload as he holds his hand low, palm down. "Then all of a sudden it's up here." He smiles as he raises his arm, but the impression is still of a serious, often intense manager; he reflects, in his tone and his mood, the gravity of the events Scotland are about to face.
On Saturday they play the Czech Republic at Hampden, then Lithuania at the same venue three days later. Scotland need to win both games, then defeat Liechtenstein next month to all but guarantee finishing second in Group I. Their final fixture is away to Spain, and Levein wants his team's fate secured before confronting the World and European champions. It is the game against the Czechs that seems most influential, though, since they are Scotland's closest rivals in the qualifying group.
Saturday's match will challenge the growing optimism that Levein feels about his side and their prospects. If there is a measure of his change in outlook, it comes from the last time Scotland played the Czech Republic in Prague last year, when he sent out his side in a 4-6-0 formation – much to the nation's consternation – and lost 1-0. The strikerless formation was seen as an admission of inferiority, and in a sense it was, since the manager was not certain that his players could contain their opponents any other way.
"We were where we were a year ago," he says. "I hadn't had time to work with the players, I didn't know their personalities, I had no idea what the best system to play was. For that game last year, the team was picked because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time; the team this time will be picked because I think this is the right thing to do again."
To Levein, the proof of that approach was not also evident in recent friendly victories over Northern Ireland, Wales and Denmark, but also in accomplishments of players like Charlie Adam, Phil Bardsley, James Morrison, Scott Brown, Steven Naismith, Allan McGregor and Kenny Miller. He considers Darren Fletcher to be the epitome of the Scotland player he wishes to work with, and the Manchester United midfielder will play a full part in both games, despite having only featured in the reserves to gain fitness after a virus. Ferguson phoned on Friday to stress that Fletcher is fit to be involved.
"He wants him to play," Levein says. "Sir Alex is a great patriot and he said that Fletcher will do you a turn all day long. Against the Czech Republic midfield, we need to stand up and be counted. We're in a better place now. My confidence comes from the players, their ages, their clubs, and what they did last season. We're ready."