Five months and counting. Scotland's quest to reach the 2006 World Cup begins in September at home to a country with half its population and whose national sport is skiing. Expectations of the team were already low, but after the third successive defeat for Berti Vogts's side - 2-1 to a Romania team that failed to qualify for Euro 2004 - they will be almost subterranean.
Before the Scots take on Slovenia in Glasgow, they have only two friendlies scheduled, one against Denmark in Copenhagen on 28 April and one at home to Hungary on 18 August. There is also talk of taking part in a three-nation tournament in London in late May along with Jamaica and Nigeria. In the meantime he must hope that the Scottish Football Association remains immune to a festering unease over his performance since taking over from Craig Brown two years ago.
The prospect of paying up the former Germany coach's contract, which is worth up to £500,000 a year with bonuses and has two years to run, means the hierarchy at the SFA is unlikely to act in haste even if it were so minded. Vogts argues that he should be judged on the basis of competitive fixtures. Just as well: if friendlies were the criterion, the judge would probably have donned the black cap some time ago.
Vogts may have a point. Between the embarrassing 2-2 draw with the Faroe Islands and 6-0 surrender to the Netherlands, Scotland had shown signs, in the matches which mattered, of gelling into a team with a future. The losses to Wales (4-0) and Romania should not be allowed to obscure the promise shown in the first-leg victory over the Dutch or over two close-run games against Germany.
The time to pass the definitive verdict on Vogts, by his reasoning, will be when it is clear that Scotland have any chance of competing on the global stage in two years' time. And for the World Cup group games we can expect to see Barry Ferguson, Darren Fletcher, Stephen Pearson and Robert Douglas, all absent on Wednesday.
A heavy defeat against the Danes or the Hungarians could yet render such arguments academic, and after the latest setback, with only a breathtaking solo goal by the substitute James McFadden to lighten the gloom, even those who appointed Vogts and continue to back him were entitled to question his methods.
Once again he deputed a player to a role alien to him. In France it was Dougie Freedman, a penalty-box player, in wide midfield, but that was Vogts' first match so he was granted some licence. At home to Austria he had the giant centre-half Lee Wilkie at left-back. Against Romania, Gary Caldwell looked lost in his role of midfield anchor.
A substantial question mark lingers, therefore, over Vogts's ability to organise the side. There is talent coming through, as demonstrated by the emergence of McFadden, Fletcher and Pearson. Some 23 games into his reign, only six of which have been won and 13 lost, the German is still struggling to prove he is the man to harness it effectively.
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