Miller's strike gives Scotland glimmer of hope

Scotland 1 Italy 1
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The Scots travel with the praise of Italy's venerable coach, Marcello Lippi, ringing in their ears, most of it lavished on a striker who will return to the second tier of English football next weekend, turning out at Luton with Wolves.

Kenny Miller did more than head the goal that left the fancy Danieles from Serie A playing catch-up for an hour. He was the lung-bursting, battered embodiment of Scotland's transformation into a confident, organised side that Norway will underrate at their peril.

Two years earlier, Miller struck at the same end of Hampden in a 1-1 draw with Germany. The similarities ended there. After that Euro 2004 qualifier, a Scotland team under the ill-starred stewardship of Berti Vogts were embarrassingly pleased with their point. On Saturday, neither the players nor Vogts' successor, Walter Smith, could disguise their disappointment that that the country lying 86th in Fifa's world rankings had not defeated the one in 13th place.

Scotland have not suddenly become world-beaters, even if "Yabba-dabba-do - Easy, easy!" boomed out over the Tannoy in an absurdly upbeat echo of when the Tartan Army's kilts strutted the World Cup catwalk every four years. Smith has simply put in place a system that plays to the strengths of the talent available, a welcome contrast with Vogts' reign.

The way Smith structured his team looked calculated, as a first priority, to stifle Lippi's bent for attack. Christian Dailly, whose harsh booking by a fussy referee means he is suspended for the Norway game, patrolled between the back four and the best-balanced midfield quartet Scotland have had since McAllister, McCall, McStay and Collins.

Paul Hartley particularly caught the eye, and not only because he has burst on to the international scene in the past six months after a low-profile career that has led from Hamilton Accies to Hearts via Millwall and Raith Rovers. Even allowing for the late flowering of his industry and invention, it is an indictment of Vogts that, with all the dozens of players he capped, the 28-year-old who traded shirts with Francesco Totti as an equal here was not among them.

Scotland often started poorly during the German's tenure. Now they were ahead before a sixth of the contest had elapsed, Miller like a latter-day Denis Law to glance Hartley's cross past Angelo Peruzzi. If the finish and movement highlighted the influence of Ally McCoist, who coaches Smith's forwards, the new-found upper-body strength and sharpness that preoccupied Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro were a tribute to the work of his club manager, Glenn Hoddle.

Miller, who has still to score for his club this season, said it was "pleasing" to hear Lippi had singled him out. There was more: Barry Ferguson, Scotland's captain, admitted he was "surprised Rangers let him go", while David Weir reckoned he was "as good as Totti or [Christian] Vieri on the day".

"I've had four chances in my last four internationals and got two goals," said Miller. "That's a 50 per cent strike rate. I'd up end with 500 if I kept that up for the rest of my career."

Inevitably, Scotland found it hard to maintain their work-rate and Italy increasingly dominated possession. However, the resistance led by the imperious Weir, allied to a bad miss by Vieri, conspired to make Smith believe a famous victory could be theirs. Lippi reacted by introducing Mauro Camoranesi, whose fluid running at last troubled a tiring defence, though the goal that put qualification within the Azzurri's grasp was frustratingly scruffy from a Scottish standpoint.

It stemmed from a corner by Totti, who could have been watching in shame from the touchline at that point, having thrust an arm into Weir's face shortly after being booked. Fabio Grosso, an unsung substitute from Sicily, will claim the goal, but his volley needed a deflection off Jackie McNamara to beat Craig Gordon. Like any manager worth his salt, Smith detests conceding from set-pieces, and all three Italian goals against Scotland in this campaign emanated from such a source.

The former Everton and Rangers manager may come to view that statistic in a better light. Italy, for all their pressure and prowess, could not score against his team in 180 minutes of open play. Norway offer a different, almost "British" challenge, and the last-minute winner by Blackburn's Morten Gamst Pedersen in Slovenia makes them favourites to finish in second place. But Scotland at least now know exactly what they must do, and Smith is unlikely to fail for want of adequate preparation.

SCOTLAND (4-1-4-1): Gordon (Hearts); Alexander (Preston), Weir (Everton), Webster (Hearts), McNamara (Wolves); Dailly (West Ham); Hartley (Hearts), Fletcher (Manchester United), Ferguson (Rangers), Quashie (Southampton); K Miller (Wolves). Substitutes used: McCann (Southampton) for Quashie, 67; Beattie (Celtic) for Miller, 76.

ITALY (4-3-1-2): Peruzzi (Lazio); Zaccardo (Palermo), Cannavaro (Juventus), Nesta (Milan), Zambrotta (Juventus); Gattuso, Pirlo (both Milan), De Rossi (Roma); Totti (Roma); Iaquinta (Udinese), Vieri (Milan). Substitutes used: Grosso (Palermo) for Zaccardo, h-t; Camoranesi (Juventus) for De Rossi, 60; Toni (Fiorentina) for Iaquinta, 71.

Referee: L Michael (Slovakia).