Sneijder's talents bring Scotland back down to earth

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The Independent Football

So the future is not tartan, as some Scots dared to dream during the four days between the 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in the Glasgow leg of their Euro 2004 play-off and the 6-0 rout by the same opponents here on Wednesday. If the bravura display by the 19-year-old Wesley Sneijder is any indication, it could yet be orange.

Sven Goran Eriksson was sufficiently intrigued by a British team confronting the Dutch to head for the Amsterdam ArenA. The England manager saw Sneijder, in only his third international, orchestrate a fluid performance that prompted his Scotland counterpart, Berti Vogts, to pronounce Dick Advocaat's side "one of the favourites, with France and maybe Germany" to win the tournament in Portugal.

The Scots, incredibly at this level, conceded three headed goals from set-pieces, a fate that Eriksson would be confident of avoiding. He must, however, have noted the poise and precision of Sneijder, which probably interested him more than Ruud van Nistelrooy's hat-trick.

The Swede is well acquainted with the Manchester United striker's ruthlessness. Sneijder, while he has played in the Champions' League, is a comparatively unknown quantity. When Ajax met Arsenal, Patrick Vieira was so astonished by his ability to receive the ball on either side, and the way he wrong-footed rivals, that he waited for him at half-time to ask whether he was right- or left-footed.

The truth, as Scotland discovered when he scored the first goal, made the next two and later hit the bar, is that Sneijder is genuinely two-footed. Along with his club colleague Rafael van der Vaart, 20, he offers the Dutch renewed hope for next summer.

True, they were bickering even in triumph as only the Dutch can - Advocaat announced sourly that his players were boycotting the press because of the stories about Kluivert and company - yet they were hardly united in the Cruyff or Gullit eras either.

After failing to qualify for a third successive tournament, Scotland's role next year will initially be to provide opposition for some of the finalists. In keeping with Vogts' policy of "learning" by facing the stronger teams in friendlies, they are likely to visit Italy in February, with further games in March and April and a possible trip to the United States or Africa in June before the World Cup qualifiers start in the autumn.

Paul Lambert has won his last cap and the same may be true of Don Hutchison. The linchpins will now be Barry Ferguson and Christian Dailly, whose value to the team as a defensive midfielder and organiser was highlighted in his absence by the poor concentration and marking of Lee Wilkie and Steven Pressley.

Imagine, then, how numbing the experience must have been for Darren Fletcher and James McFadden, who are the same ages as Sneijder and Van der Vaart respectively. To argue, as some did amid the anticlimax of Amsterdam, that since Vogts' first match was a similar thrashing (5-0 in France), no actual progress has been made, is to forget too quickly the thrilling way the young duo combined for the goal last weekend.

The Under-21s, too, have improved under Rainer Bonhof's stewardship. Vogts will assess who merits the step up, though it was a reflection of limited playing resources when he said yesterday that there would be "no major changes".

On a night when the Dutch strategy of moulding players from as young as six received resounding vindication, one bitter irony was that Scotland's failure may scupper the Scottish FA's ambitious plans for youth development. Simply qualifying for Euro 2004 would have earned £3.4m. Vogts was on a £500,000 bonus to take them to Portugal - money which might usefully be diverted into honing the skills of the next generation.