In Vaduz on Saturday, amid surroundings that would not have been unfamiliar to a man whose sole honour in the game is a Conference title, Craig Mackail-Smith faced an opponent collecting his 96th cap. Tonight in Alicante, the Brighton striker, a successful late fitness test on his back permitting, will take on another grizzled centre-half earning a 96th cap for his country. There the similarities end.
Martin Stocklasa earns his living in the second tier of Swiss football – as Mackail-Smith does in England. Carles Puyol is one of the world's most decorated footballers. When Puyol made his Spanish debut, Mackail-Smith was struggling to save his fledgling career at St Albans City.
Mackail-Smith got the better of Stocklasa to score a first goal for his country – born in Watford, he qualifies though his Edinburgh-born grandmother – but Puyol and Gerard Pique would offer comfortably the greatest challenge of his career. Ninety minutes against Jamie Carragher in a Carling Cup tie and three minutes at the tail end of a friendly against Brazil are the leading contenders so far.
Eight of the Scotland XI that begun against Liechtenstein are collected from the Premier League, a notably higher number than the norm in recent years. A midfield based around Darren Fletcher, Barry Bannan and Charlie Adam – all three of whom are also worried by injury – gives Craig Levein a level of (relative) ability possessed by few of his immediate predecessors.
But Wolves, West Bromwich, Wigan and Sunderland tend to be looking down the Premier League rather than up and, tonight in the Jose Rico Perez stadium, the challenge will be the severest possible in international football. It is not only Mackail-Smith who is being asked to over-reach himself.
"They won't be overawed by the occasion," said Levein. "We have players who play week-in, week-out in the Premier League and we have players with self-belief and those two things help.
"It is not just that – it is the belief in each other and the team which is important. Also, our players see Spanish players every weekend on TV and play against them, so there are no hidden secrets. We know what to expect."
Scotland are likely to have to take a point or better from the game as they seek to match Czech Republic's result in Lithuania – the Czechs lost the home fixture with Lithuania – if they are to qualify for a play-off and the chance of a first finals since the 1998 World Cup.
Levein's side gave the Spanish a scare a year ago at Hampden, rallying from two down to level the scores. Spain, though, had dominated the match and roused themselves once more to win it – which is no more than would be expected from their greatest group of players and one of the most garlanded in the history of the game. "We understand what we are facing," said Levein.
"I took encouragement from the way we played [against Spain] and that we scored goals. There is no doubt that Spain's competitive record is exemplary. But I am greatly encouraged by what we are doing. We are a much better team than a year ago. I see the vast improvement and the players' self-belief has gone up a couple of levels. We have nothing to fear in this game, it is important that everyone understands that. We see this as a challenge, not something to be afraid of but something to relish."
They may well be an improving side, with six wins from their last nine games, but they retain the extremes of performance that have always bedevilled Scottish football. A month before those 10 minutes of eye-rubbing magic against Spain, they needed a 97th-minute header to beat Liechtenstein at Hampden.
Scotland trained yesterday at La Manga as Levein delayed naming his team ahead of fitness tests for Mackail-Smith, Fletcher and Bannan. Kenny Miller has no more than a slim chance of being involved. If Mackail-Smith is unfit, David Goodwillie, who has yet to score a league goal for Blackburn, will lead the line. If Fletcher and Bannan both fail to make it, the gulf between the two sides will seem wider than ever.
They were watched by Kenny Dalglish, who scored his final Scotland goal in a notable victory over Spain that set them on course to the 1986 World Cup finals. Dalglish rates that goal as his favourite of the hundreds he scored at the highest level. Were Mackail-Smith to net so decisively tonight, it would have rather less personal competition, and be even more remarkable because of it.
Honours board: how they compare
Allan McGregor (Caps: 16) SPL: 3, Scottish Cup: 3, Scottish League Cup: 5
Alan Hutton (21) SPL: 1, League Cup: 1
Christophe Berra (16) Scottish Cup: 1, Championship: 1
Gary Caldwell (44) SPL: 2, Scottish Cup: 1, Scottish League Cup: 1
Phil Bardsley (9)
Darren Fletcher (56) Premier League: 4, Champions League: 1, FA Cup: 1, League Cup: 2, FIFA Club World Cup: 1
Charlie Adam (14) Scottish First Division: 1, Challenge Cup: 1
James Morrison (17) Championship: 1
Barry Bannan (10)
Steven Naismith (14) SPL: 3, Scottish Cup: 1, Scottish League Cup: 2
Craig Mackail-Smith (3) Blue Square Premier: 1
Victor Valdes (Caps: 5) La Liga: 5, Champions League: 3, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 2, Fifa Club World Cup: 1, World Cup: 1
Sergio Ramos (78) La Liga: 2, Copa del Rey: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
Carles Puyol (95) La Liga: 5, Champions League: 3, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 2, Fifa Club World Cup: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
Gerard Pique (34) Premier League: 1, La Liga: 3, Champions League: 3, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 2, Fifa Club World Cup: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
Jordi Alba (0)
Sergio Busquets (34) La Liga: 3, Champions League: 2, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 2, Fifa Club World Cup: 1, World Cup: 1
Xavi (103) La Liga: 6, Champions League: 3, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 2, Fifa Club World Cup: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
Xabi Alonso (90) Champions League: 1, FA Cup: 1, Copa del Rey: 1, Uefa Super Cup: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
David Silva (51) FA Cup: 1, Copa del Rey: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
Fernando Torres (89) Segunda Division: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1
David Villa (79) La Liga: 1, Champions League: 1, Copa del Rey: 2, Uefa Super Cup: 1, European Championship: 1, World Cup: 1.Reuse content