Berti Vogts yesterday intimated - his critics might say threatened - that he could remain as manager of Scotland beyond the end of his contract in 2006. Within minutes, the Scottish Football Association's chief executive, David Taylor, confirmed that if they fail to reach the World Cup that summer, then, and only then, the German's tenure would be over.
Taylor's declaration stipulated that second place in a group that includes Italy, Norway and Slovenia would be acceptable provided it led to Scotland qualifying for the finals. His words will ease the pressure on Vogts in the event of a makeshift Scotland side suffering a fourth successive defeat in tonight's friendly with Denmark. Yet they also defined the limits of the SFA's tolerance of the former Germany coach, who had just invoked his "love" of his adopted country and its people when suggesting he "may stay longer".
On Monday, Taylor had taken the unusual step of holding a meeting with the players to reiterate his executive committee's support for Scotland's embattled manager. "We are the best supporters the national side could have. We're right behind the team and the manager," he told the media, who 24 hours earlier had heard Vogts' assistant, Tommy Burns, question the commitment to Vogts by some members of the SFA hierarchy.
Taylor added: "Qualification is our target, and that's how Berti will be judged. The proof of the pudding will come when the campaign starts in September. I don't care if we're 150th in the Fifa rankings, behind Iraq or Mali or whoever, as long as we get to the major tournaments."
The latest positions show Scotland rated 61st (behind Ecuador, Iran and Qatar, incidentally), compared with 14th for the Euro 2004-bound Danes. The Scots, who have had eight withdrawals, have won just six and lost 13 of their 23 matches under Vogts. In contrast, Denmark are close to full strength and will be seeking a 26th win in Morten Olsen's 41 games in charge, only five of which have brought defeat.
Throw in the statistic that Scotland have lost the past four meetings with Denmark, plus the fact that their most recent goal against them came in 1975 from Ted MacDougall, and prospects of a renaissance starting this evening look bleak. Under Craig Brown's stewardship, they had a knack of confounding low expectations; beating England at Wembley in 1999 was the prime example. But then Brown was a master of marshalling slender resources, an attribute his successor has yet to demonstrate.
Vogts, having made John Kennedy the 31st new cap of his reign against Romania last month only to see the Celtic teenager suffer a cruel injury, is certain to add to that list here. Malky Mackay, 32-year-old captain of newly promoted Norwich, is poised to become Scotland's oldest debutant since the late Ronnie Simpson, who was 36 when he kept goal in the epic triumph over England's world champions in 1967.
Peter Canero, Leicester's capture from Kilmarnock, and David McNamee, Livingston's former Blackburn player, are in contention for the first time in midfield, where Scotland must particularly counter Denmark's wing-play. McNamee is nicknamed "Van Gogh" after losing part of an ear in a Glasgow night-club fracas, although this may prove an occasion for damage-limitation rather than artistry.
Vogts also hopes to have his captain, Barry Ferguson, back from long-term injury to play part of the friendlies against Estonia and Trinidad & Tobago next month. "It's looking very good for the future," the manager said, a trifle unconvincingly. In the immediate term, the value of tonight's potential mis-match already appears dubious, at best, for Scotland.
DENMARK (4-3-3; probable): Sorensen (Aston Villa); Helveg (Internazionale), Henriksen (Panathinaikos), Laursen (Milan), N Jensen (Borussia Dortmund); D Jensen (Murcia), C Jensen (Charlton), Wiehgorst (Brondby); Gronkjaer (Chelsea), Tomasson (Milan), Jorgensen (Udinese).
SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Gallacher (Dundee United); Webster, Pressley (both Hearts), Mackay (Norwich); Fletcher (Manchester United), G Caldwell (Hibernian), Dailly (West Ham), Cameron (Wolves), McCann (Southampton); Kyle (Sunderland), McFadden (Everton).
Referee: M Ingvarsson (Sweden).Reuse content