Compared to the ill wind rattling at the shutters of sanity in the England camp, Scotland's preparations for today's final qualifier against Lithuania have been a breeze. No threat of players going on strike or of the manager defecting - just a team torn by injuries and illness, adding up to the "worst build-up" Berti Vogts can ever remember.
For a game they must win to have any chance of earning a two-leg play-off for a place at Euro 2004, Scotland will be without five players who figured in last month's Group Five defeat in Germany. And if reluctant quitters do not scupper Vogts' plans, rampant squitters may. The captain Barry Ferguson, Colin Cameron and Steven Pressley have all had their preparations for Hampden Park disrupted by diarrhoea.
Throw in the fact that the most-capped member of Scotland's squad, Christian Dailly, will play with the distraction of his wife being about to produce their fourth child, and Vogts might be forgiven for tearing out what remains of his hair. Instead, yesterday found him flushed, if his captain will pardon the expression, with enthusiasm and expectation.
"This is a time of great optimism for the future of Scottish football," he said, a statement unthinkable after Scotland's draw in the Faroe Islands a year ago. "We have played a lot of good matches, especially in Iceland [a 2-0 win], and home to Germany [1-1] and the Faroes [3-1]. Now the boys have the togetherness of a club side rather than a national team."
Scotland's fortunes have indeed improved since the nadir of Toftir. Vogts hailed the "passion, organisation and new, young faces", though the upturn has also coincided with his jettisoning weak, inexperienced players and reverting to several he inherited from Craig Brown.
When he talks of a brighter future, however, a sell-out crowd of 52,000 must hope that, as well as being something to savour a few years hence, it starts with immediate effect. Whatever the Scots achieve - and they have a score to settle having lost to a risible late penalty award in Lithuania - they are dependent on Iceland failing to pull off an improbable win away to a Germany team already assured of at least a play-off berth.
If Scotland triumph and Iceland draw in Hamburg, Vogts' side will go through by virtue of having beaten them twice. But if Iceland pull off one of the greatest upsets in European football history by defeating Rudi Völler's 2002 World Cup finalists, no Scottish win will suffice.
There will be a temptation, given that Scotland would be eliminated by a repeat of the draw which Lithuania secured in Germany, for Vogts to go for an attacking formation that includes Darren Fletcher and James McFadden on the flanks. Starting with both players, who are 19 and 20, respectively, may be too great a gamble for an inherently cautious man whose ideal is "a blend of experience and fresh blood".
Kenny Miller, who has seen just two hours' action since scoring against Germany in June, is likely to partner Stevie Crawford up front. Dailly, who Vogts trusts to be "totally professional" despite the imminent addition to his family, will slot into midfield or defence according to Scotland's needs.
"We must play at a higher tempo than in Lithuania, which was a match with no speed," Vogts said. "We'll also have to work very hard. I've watched all the tapes so I know their team well, and they're not bad. I'm not interested in updates of the score from Hamburg. We just have to be completely focused and look for that result afterwards."
The Tartan Army will be less enamoured of Vogts' wishing England well in Turkey out of solidarity with Sven Goran Eriksson. When it was put to him that he must be proud of his players, who would never refuse to represent their country, he body-swerved the question with the aplomb of a flying winger rather than the high-class full-back he was. Tonight, he will settle for being a manager with a play-off to ponder.
Scotland: (4-4-2; probable): Douglas (Celtic); McNamara (Celtic), Pressley, Webster (both Hearts), Naysmith (Everton); Cameron (Wolves), Dailly (West Ham), Ferguson (Blackburn), McFadden (Everton); Miller (Wolves), Crawford (Dunfermline).
Lithuania: (4-4-2; probable): Stauce (Kallithea, Gre); Dedura (Skonto Riga, Lat), Dziaukstas (Torpedo Metallurg, Rus), Barasa (Alania Vladikavkaz, Rus), Zvirgzdauskas (Halmstads, Swe); Maciulevicius (Kaunas), Vencvicius (Marsaxlokk, Malta), Razanauskas (Akratitos, Gre), Stesko (Zalgiris Vilnius); Beniusis (Kaunas), Jankauskas (Porto, Por).
Referee: C Colombo (France).Reuse content