Two wins and Smith's dream is back in vision

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The Independent Football

"They think it's Moldova. It is now." That was the headline that greeted Scotland's embarrassing draw with the down-at-heel eastern Europeans seven months ago. Yet, it is not all over, according to the manager, Walter Smith.

"They think it's Moldova. It is now." That was the headline that greeted Scotland's embarrassing draw with the down-at-heel eastern Europeans seven months ago. Yet, it is not all over, according to the manager, Walter Smith.

The man who inherited a World Cup shambles from Berti Vogts, after his predecessor was jettisoned after that night of misery last October, feels that the Scots could yet snatch second place in Group Five and sneak into the play-off for the 2006 finals.

The return encounter with Moldova at Hampden Park on Saturday is followed by a trip to Minsk on the Wednesday to play Belarus. Smith has targeted six points from the double-header as essential to rekindle the flicker of optimism that emerged when his team made life difficult for Italy in the San Siro stadium seven weeks ago before two free-kicks from Andrea Pirlo spoiled the Scotland manager's international debut.

Subsequent resistance from Moldova and Belarus prevented Slovenia and Norway from escaping and entering into a duel of their own for the runners-up place behind Italy. Now Smith wants his team to profit from those other results.

However, he is aware that Scotland have to discover a goal threat to assist James McFadden. The capricious young Everton striker has scored in four of the last five games in which Scotland have found the net. "James has had to carry the burden of responsibility for the last couple of years," said Smith, as he gathered some of his squad for an extra training camp. "He has been doing that since he was 19. When you consider that he is still only the same age as Garry O'Connor and Derek Riordan of Hibernian, whom we think of as inexperienced at 22, it seems unfair."

Smith feels he has nine potential strikers in his squad for the qualifying ties and would prefer to use the game with Moldova to blood O'Connor and Riordan, who scored 43 goals together this season for Hibs, though the Edinburgh club will listen to offers for the latter now that he has turned down a new contract.

"This will be a much different game to Milan," pointed out Smith. "Then, we did well defensively and were unlucky not to get a goal. This time, the onus will be on us to be positive and adapt."

No one suits that description more than Lee McCulloch. The Wigan Athletic player made his debut in Moldova and played wide on the left of midfield against Italy. His goals were responsible for Wigan's ascent into the English Premiership and McCulloch would love to continue that form.

"I know our manager, Paul Jewell, is going to have £25m to spend of new players now that we're in the Premiership," said McCulloch. "However, playing for Scotland is my chance to show I'm as good as anyone else.

"My first cap in Moldova was a bit overshadowed because of all the stuff that was going on around Berti Vogts. We need to start well at Hampden against the Moldovans. Then we can carry that on to the Belarus game. We need all six points."

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