Levein urges Scotland to be brave in Spain


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The last step will be the hardest for Scotland, playing in Spain tomorrow night, in pursuit of a Euro 2012 play-off place.

The campaign to reach their first major tournament since France '98 climaxes in a way that felt inevitable from the start: travelling to the world and European champions, almost certainly needing a result to secure second place in Group I.

They might get lucky. The Czech Republic, currently one point behind in third place, play away to Lithuania. Should the Czechs lose, then Scotland are through regardless.

More likely, though, is Czech success and the subsequent requirement that Scotland overturn the finest international side of their generation in the Estadio Jose Rico Perez in Alicante.

There is little surprise, then, that Scotland manager Craig Levein will not allow his players to get distracted by the match in Kaunas. "We can't go in the game relying on what happens in Lithuania, we have no influence over that," he said. "So it makes complete sense for me to do everything I can to win the game on Tuesday night."

It barely needs saying that it will be difficult. Spain passed their way to success in both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, playing a brand of football that would be remarkable had Barcelona not made it so familiar in recent seasons.

Of course, Spain have to do without the irreplaceable Lionel Messi and Dani Alves but they do have the whole of Barcelona's supercomputer at their disposal, as well as some exceptional players based at Real Madrid and in the Premier League.

Of all the strengths of the Spanish squad, their depth is perhaps the most remarkable. Even if Vicente del Bosque is generous enough to drop every single player who beat the Czechs 2-0 on Friday (and why would he be?), he could still call upon David Villa, Pedro, Carles Puyol, Pepe Reina and Fernando Llorente.

Levein recognises the size of Scotland's task, but will not allow his players to worry. "It is a tall order, we understand that but there is nothing for us to fear, that is the important thing, there is nothing to fear," he said. "We are playing the world champions, of course, but we are in the position where if we win the game we qualify. Of course we recognise it is difficult but I can assure you that the lads will run themselves into the ground attempting to get that second spot."

The game will be made even harder by growing injury problems in the squad. Barry Bannan, the Aston Villa midfielder with a Spanish touch, is a doubt. "He has a gash on his heel and was uncomfortable this morning," said Levein. "It is a really awkward area. The doctor had to put some glue on it to hold it together. He is doubtful, but it is very soon after the game to get a clear picture of who is going to be available or not."

Craig Mackail-Smith, whose header gave Scotland a 1-0 win over Liechtenstein on Saturday, will be assessed after suffering from back trouble. He may be replaced by Kenny Miller, himself injured for the game in Vaduz. "There are quite a few niggles but we will get a clearer picture on Monday," added Levein. "I haven't had the opportunity to speak to Kenny or the doctor so he is another in the wait-and-see category."

The frustration is that Scotland might have already secured second spot. Last month two baffling penalty decisions resulted in their drawing 2-2 with the Czechs at Hampden Park. Had Scotland won, and subsequent results stayed the same, they would now be in the play-offs. Critics of Levein may point to the match in Prague one year ago, when he played without a striker and lost 1-0, or the goalless draw in Lithuania which started the campaign.

But qualification was never going to be smooth or simple. Scotland have fought hard to be in the position they are in; they were 11 minutes away from drawing with Spain at Hampden.

Another Herculean effort might just deliver them into the play-offs.