Scotland v Italy: 'We can reach finals by completing Italian job'

The days when Alexander wanted Del Piero's shirt as a souvenir have gone – he wants to guide the Scots to the promised land
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The Independent Online

It is doubtful if Alessandro Del Piero has even heard of Scunthorpe, Luton, Preston or Burnley. It is a world away from the sort of places on the itinerary of a world champion. It is, how-ever, the route map of theman who stands in the way of the celebrated Italian taking his expected place at Euro 2008.

Graham Alexander has toiled long and hard to reach the position he will occupy on Saturday at Hampden Park. Once the full-back would have been content with Del Piero's shirt as a souvenir, but now he and the rest of the Scotland side want to swap lifestyles with the rich and famous Azzurri. Victory for Alex McLeish's side will send the Scots to the European Championship finals, leaving the 2006 World Cup winners to head to the beach next summer.

Bizarre? Yes. Possible? Entirely. Roberto Donadoni's stellar cast will come to Glasgow safe in the knowledge that Italy do not reallydo failure when it comes to qualification. They have little to gain but everything to lose. What will gnaw away at the Italians is the fear that any team who caninflict defeat upon France, not once but twice, as the Scots have done in a remarkable Group B race, are capable of anything.

Alexander will almost cer-tainly win his 33rd cap against Italy at Hampden. He may be playing his club football in the Championship but the adaptable full-back has become a player upon whom his country can rely at the highest level. Walter Smith was a huge admirer of Alexander when he was in charge of Scotland, while McLeish under-lined his faith in the 36-year-old Burnley player by restoring him to the side which defeated France in Paris in September.

If anything, Alexander symbolises Scotland right now. Not rated but capable of delivering much more than a modest CV indicates. He was a late starter, not making his international debut until 2002, after a career that took him from Scunthorpe United to Luton Town, then to Preston North End, where his then manager, David Moyes, put him on Scotland's radar. Yet the transition has been so seamless that Alexander will be making his third appearance against Italy in just a couple of years.

"When we lost 2-0 to them in Bari in the qualifying match last season, I played at right-back and I was up against Antonio Di Natale of Roma, who was then substituted by Del Piero, which was a great thrill," says Alexander. "It is great to test yourself against big players but now we've had a taste of beating them, with the two wins over France, we want to finish the job against Italy. When they came to Hamp-den in 2005 and drew 1-1 they got a deflected equaliser, but that took them to the World Cup finals – which they won – while we failed to qualify. Yet I remember we went off the pitch that day disappointed because we had not beaten Italy. That sort of mentality now runs right through the Scotland set-up.

"I am sure Italy will be respectful of us because they will look at our record in this campaign and they know we will be tough opponents. Yet they will expect to win. It would be a major disappointment for Italy, or France, if they did not reach any finals. But now it would be for us as well. We don't want any sort of 'glorious defeat' like Scotland have had in the past. We want to go all the way and we just have to be brave and not be scared of trying to succeed."

The Hampden encounter has been a 52,000 sell-out, like all the others in this Euro 2008 campaign, for some time. The frenzyto obtain tickets has been like the Scotland of old: something Alexander knows only too well. His father, Andrew, used to take him to Wembley for the fabled England-Scotland meetings.

"My dad is a passionate Scot even though he moved down to Coventry when he was a young man," Alexander said. "He used to take me to Scotland games at Wembley in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Those trips were amazing. He was a member of a Scottish club in Coventry, and everyone went on a bus to London for the games. I was eight or nine and they used to leave me standing outside the pub before we went to the ground.

"Those games with England were great. I don't remember the football, it was the noise and atmosphere I recall. I loved being part of it. We used to go down the M1 and the whole of Scotland seemed to be on the road. My dad was at Wembley in 1977 when Scotland won and the fans invaded the pitch.

"He still goes to the club every week. They have Scotland team photos on the wall. It used to be Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, and now it is me. My dad has been coming up to Hampden for over 30 years to watch Scotland. He was so proud when I got into the team and it has been good for me to give him something back. He will be there with my son, Calum, who is 10. Hopefully we can give them something to remember."

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