Alex McLeish hopes that Italy's blueprint for winning last year's World Cup can help his young Scotland team qualify for Euro 2008. And as he fine-tuned his preparations yesterday for this afternoon's Group B qualifier at Hampden Park against Lithuania, he cited a recent lecture by Marcello Lippi as inspiration.
"Winning games gives you the belief to win, and the more the players do it, then the more confidence they get, the more belief they have," McLeish said. "And it's simply down to winning games. We were at a recent [coaches'] conference with Lippi and he spoke about winning the World Cup, and he said it was down to winning games in all situations."
Scotland have won five of their seven qualifiers so far, to put them third behind France (three points ahead) and Italy (two) this morning.
And though they lost in Ukraine and in Italy, they have since continued their momentum with friendly wins – and experimental teams – against Austria and South Africa.
What pleases McLeish is a growing strength in depth, and a winning mindset, even though the average age of his players – which will probably be 25 today – is by far the youngest in the group.
"[Lippi] said he left out the big Milan and Juventus players for friendlies, and tried all sorts of different players, young players, and they came to the fore," McLeish continued. "And it gave him the belief not to go to the World Cup just as contenders but to win it. And that's what winning does for players. It enhances their belief. And with what our players have done so far, they should be entitled to be confident."
Even with key players absent today in Barry Ferguson, suspended, and Gary Naysmith, injured, McLeish has options. Darren Fletcher will take Ferguson's armband and play in the centre of midfield alongside Celtic's emerging fulcrum, Scott Brown. Derby's Jay McEveley will start at left-back in place of Naysmith.
McLeish confirmed Scotland will play 4-4-2. Rangers' Kris Boyd and Birmingham's Garry O'Connor partnered together up front would send a signal of attacking intent, but playing Everton's James McFadden would be an alternative, perhaps just behind Boyd. The good form of the West Bromwich forward Craig Beattie has not gone unnoticed, and will probably earn him some pitch time, while Shaun Maloney could be used either wide left or up front. "I know that at international level and European level you rarely see two strikers together these days," McLeish said. "But I hope we can cope with playing that way."
Next Wednesday's game in Paris has threatened to overshadow the Lithuania game. "Complacency's the one thing we're all wary of," McLeish said. "But I just don't see it in these players. They're too focused. They know the things that have made them get this far: work rate, commitment."
Lithuania will arrive with familiar faces aplenty. Six of their squad play for Heart of Midlothian, while a seventh, Edgaras Jankauskas, left Tynecastle last season. McLeish also cited the Brescia midfielder, Marius Stankevicius, as a particular danger.
But he maintains his faith in the virtuous circle of winning. "To be where we speaks volumes for these players," he said. "And surely we can only get better."
Scotland (possible, 4-4-2): Gordon (Sunderland); Hutton (Rangers), Weir (Rangers), McManus (Celtic), McEveley (Derby); Hartley (Celtic), Fletcher (Man Utd), Brown (Celtic), McCulloch (Rangers); Boyd (Rangers), O'Connor (Birmingham).
Remaining fixtures: Today: Georgia v Ukraine, Italy v France, Scotland v Lithuania; 12 Sept: France v Scotland, Lithuania v Faroe Islands, Ukraine v Italy; 13 Oct: Faroe Islands v France, Italy v Georgia, Scotland v Ukraine; 17 Oct: France v Lithuania, Georgia v Scotland, Ukraine v Faroe Islands; 17 Nov: Lithuania v Ukraine, Scotland v Italy; 21 Nov: Georgia v Lithuania, Italy v Faroe Islands, Ukraine v France.Reuse content