Minsk a reminder of what might yet be for Scots

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The Independent Football

Minsk was named over 900 years ago, but it is hard to tell when you visit the place. There are no historic buildings in a city that was virtually destroyed during the Second World War. Where better for a football team to shake off their past? The bus that took Scotland from the Dinamo stadium last Wednesday sped past the one vivid piece of architecture in the grey, featureless Belarus capital. The Monument to the Unknown Soldier underlined that a city which lost half its population to German bombs cares more about substance than style. Walter Smith would agree.

The Scotland manager sacrificed flair for a World Cup point and made no pretence about it. The 0-0 draw allowed the Scots to live on and fight another day in the Group Five qualifying campaign. The odds may seem long, but few would have given Minsk a chance of rising from the ashes 60 years ago.

The place was named a Hero City by the Soviet Union but is now a thriving symbol of Belarus independence. Smith is also seeking to cover over traces of the old regime, the one led by Berti Vogts, whose inept leadership badly damaged Scotland's hopes of reaching the 2006 finals.

One point from the opening three games was Vogts' legacy to Smith. The former Everton manager made up some of the lost ground by earning four points in four days with the win over Moldova last weekend before the stubborn draw with Belarus.

"I don't make any apologies for that," said Smith, responding to claims that his team bored the television viewers at home. "We set out our stall to defend. We have now played three games since I took over and the only time our defence has been beaten was by the free-kicks from Italy's Andrea Pirlo in Milan.

"Any manager who comes into a job will tell you that you have to sort out the defence first. I would have loved to go for the win but, in terms of the group, the point that we gained could be valuable. There is not much between the teams competing for second place."

Neither Scotland nor anyone else in Group Five have ever had any illusions that Italy would fail to earn automatic qualification. The rest - notably Norway and Slovenia - are in a race for the runners-up position that dangles the carrot of a play-off place as the route to Germany 2006.

Indeed, the group is beginning to shape up like Ireland's, with series of draws prevent-ing any of the contenders for that passport from establishing a comfort zone.

"Belarus are the best attacking side in the group outside of Italy," reflected the defender Steven Pressley. "Everyone can see that we are better organised now under Walter Smith, but we also showed great spirit. We are only three points away from the play-off spot and it is still in our own hands."

Scotland face a crucial double-header in September when Italy come to Hampden Park and then go to Oslo four days later. "We have gone from a position where there was no hope to one where there is some," declared Smith.