Smith looks to restore Scottish honour

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The Independent Football

During the tragi-comedy of the Berti Vogts era, many of the 64 players he capped for Scotland performed as if unsure whether they were coming or going. As Walter Smith's reign starts tonight, with a World Cup qualifier against Italy at San Siro no less, the mood in the camp reflects a conviction that they now have a manager with a strong sense of where he came from and a clear vision of where he wants to lead them.

During the tragi-comedy of the Berti Vogts era, many of the 64 players he capped for Scotland performed as if unsure whether they were coming or going. As Walter Smith's reign starts tonight, with a World Cup qualifier against Italy at San Siro no less, the mood in the camp reflects a conviction that they now have a manager with a strong sense of where he came from and a clear vision of where he wants to lead them.

Twelve years ago, before his Rangers side faced Marseille for a place in the Champions' League final, Smith reflected on his humble origins in a working-class suburb of Glasgow. "Can an electrician from Carmyle win the European Cup?" he asked. The answer, it transpired, was no, yet the same, firmly-grounded work ethic continues to inform his approach as he strives to restore Scottish honour, and, although it is a long shot, their hopes of reaching Germany 2006.

The day before Vogts' 33-month tenure began, he gave an early intimation of his penchant for folly by claiming Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira were there for the taking. "Why not?" the German demanded.

France won 5-0. Italy are capable of inflicting similar damage, which is doubtless why Smith used yesterday's media briefing to stress the importance of self-belief rather than for fuelling bravado.

"My focus has been to try to get a more positive feel over to everyone involved in the game, because if you don't have confidence you've got no chance," Smith said as the sunshine burnt off the mist around the Scots' out-of-town base. "Right now we must concentrate on ourselves, and how we're going to play, rather than on the opposition."

The first statement was a tacit acknowledgement that morale took a battering under Vogts. The second may appear to show Smith repeating the mistakes of history (the memory of Ally MacLeod dismissing the need to know about Peru before Scotland's 1978 embarrassment is still vivid). In fact, it reflected his feeling, based on detailed scrutiny of the Azzurri, that Italy are also in the process of forging a new team, and are by no means the finished article.

Marcello Lippi took over from Giovanni Trapattoni 18 months ago after a frustrating Euro 2004. He lost his first match, a friendly to Iceland, and his second, a qualifier in Slovenia. Four of his five wins have been by one goal, Belarus scoring three at Parma. Smith's research indicates, moreover, that the former Juventus coach is still groping for a style, having flitted between several systems.

"It's difficult to pin down what Italy are going to do, because they have been changing personnel, formations and tactics," he said. "Mr Lippi is feeling his way, much as I am. He has brought in a lot of younger players in the hope that he can form his team with the World Cup in mind. He also has five from Palermo, a provincial club, when normally you'd expect the squad to come from the top teams. They deserve to be treated with great respect; they have some fantastic individual players. But there's a great deal of pressure on them to do well, especially at home. We have to try to bring a little anxiety into their game."

That will necessitate keeping Italy at bay for as long as possible. When the Scots lost 3-1 in Rome in 1993, in what was, coincidentally, Craig Brown's first match in charge, they conceded within four minutes.

Since Smith's inheritance contains no obvious top-class talents - with the possible exception of Barry Ferguson, whose leadership qualities will be vital here - he hopes to "copy" the cohesion and spirit he magnanimously perceives in the Everton side created by his successor at Goodison Park, David Moyes. Despite losing key players, they have risen from just above the relegation zone to contention for the Champions' League.

Deciding Scotland's line-up was "straightforward", Smith admitted. It will be designed to contain and play on the break, rather than to engage Italy in an open contest. Gary Caldwell may operate just in front of a back four, and there may be only one striker, with Kenny Miller's recent scoring run perhaps earning him selection. Paul Hartley, previously viewed as a jobbing midfielder during his travels around the Scottish scene (via Millwall), is poised to win his first cap, while Lee McCulloch, the last of Vogts' 64, should add to his five minutes in Moldova.

The priorities, according to Smith, are performance rather than result, pride ahead of points. Such sentiments are normally designed to soften the blow of an expected defeat. Scotland, however, could be backed by a third of a crowd as low as 30,000, and even under Vogts, they upheld the tradition of faring better as underdogs than as favourites.

Italy: (4-3-2-1; probable): Buffon (Juventus); Bonera (Parma), Cannavaro (Juventus), Materazzi (Internazionale), Chiellini (Fiorentina); Camoranesi (Juventus), Gattuso (Milan), De Rossi (Roma); Totti, Cassano (both Roma); Gilardino (Parma).

Scotland: (4-1-4-1; probable): Douglas (Celtic); McNamara (Celtic), Pressley (Heart of Midlothian), Weir, Naysmith (both Everton); Caldwell (Hibernian); Hartley (Heart of Midlothian), Quashie (Southampton), Ferguson (Rangers), McCulloch (Wigan Athletic); Miller (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Referee: K Vassaras (Greece).

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