Scotland's absentee list ahead of their crucial Euro 2008 qualifier against France at Hampden on Saturday grew longer yesterday when the midfielder Nigel Quashie withdrew from the squad with an ankle problem.
Three defenders - Gary Naysmith, Graeme Murty and Kevin McNaughton - had already been stretchered out of contention, and a fourth, Russell Anderson, is doubtful. The Scots will also be without their in-form Celtic striker Kenny Miller, who has been talismanic in the national jersey of late but got booked in Lithuania last month and is suspended.
Rather than dwell on the lame and the ineligible yesterday, Scotland's manager, Walter Smith, preferred to celebrate the fact that Barry Ferguson, the Rangers captain, is ready to step back into the heart of his midfield after a long injury lay-off. Ferguson's heel problem, which hampered him for much of last season and eventually required surgery, meant that he played no part in the first two of Scotland's Euro 2008 Group B games, wins over the Faroe Islands and in Lithuania. "I'm disappointed about Nigel because he played well in the last two matches," Smith said. "He was optimistic he would be fit for Saturday's game but unfortunately that's not going to be the case.
"I think Barry is ready now. He's had half a dozen [Rangers] games, which have brought up his match fitness, and I think that was required. He was injured in the latter stages of last season, all through the close season and in the pre-season build-up. But I think he is now ready to play."
While Quashie and Naysmith would have been certain starters, the same is not true of Murty and McNaughton, so in that sense Smith's woes are less obvious than at first glance, if you ignore the fact that the World Cup finalists, who beat the World Cup winners Italy 3-1 a few weeks ago, are coming to town.
Smith still has major decisions to make about who to play in place of Naysmith at left-back, how to configure his midfield, whether one man or two will start up front, and who he or they will be. In Miller's absence, Smith has only three strikers in his squad: Rangers' Kris Boyd, Lokomotiv Moscow's Garry O'Connor and James McFadden, who usually plays in a withdrawn role anyway.
It would not be entirely surprising if Smith opted for a 4-1-4-1 to try to counter France's potent attack, with Preston's Graham Alexander at left-back and Celtic's Gary Caldwell in a holding role ahead of the back four. A four-man midfield in which Darren Fletcher, Ferguson and Paul Hartley are almost certain to play could be supplemented by Wigan's Gary Teale. That would leave scope for only one forward, but Smith has yet to decide who to play in that role.
Boyd, who has netted four Scotland goals in four appearances for his country, said yesterday he was confident he could score against France, if chosen.
"Whoever gets picked, it should be a good team we put out," he said. "I think I can score against anybody and, if the chance comes, then I hope to get on the end of it and put it away. We will give it our best shot."
Smith's deputy, Tommy Burns, has said Scotland would be satisfied with two points from the imminent games with France and in the Ukraine. Of Saturday, he added: "It is going to take a truly fantastic performance from us to win."
* Marco Materazzi last night said he is close to giving up his attempts to make peace with Zinedine Zidane, who was sent off in the World Cup final for headbutting the Italy defender, who later admitted he had provoked the Frenchman. Zidane has so refused to accept an apology from Materazzi, who said: "I've tried every possible way to make up with him but I am just about ready to give up."Reuse content