Scotland assume control of their own destiny

The complex means of deciding the best runner-up in World Cup qualifying suits Craig Brown's men
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The Independent Online
It was perhaps fitting that on the day the Scots went to the polls to decide their political future, it became clear that their country's footballing destiny would also be a matter for themselves. Well, almost...

Wednesday's frenzied even-ing of World Cup action was followed by an almost equally hectic night with calculators and slide rules as fans across Europe attempted to interpret a set of qualification rules which must have been devised by a Mensa sub-committee.

The upshot is that Scotland will qualify for the World Cup finals in France next summer if they beat Latvia at home next month - provided they are not the victims of a series of highly unlikely results in the meantime.

This is because of Fifa's qualifying stipulation that means that results against the bottom team - or, in six-team groups, bottom two teams - are ignored when comparing the records of runners-up - the best of whom qualifies for the finals automatically. Thus each team can achieve a maximum of 18 points. If Scotland beat Latvia they will have 13, a figure only two countries can surpass. One is Spain, but only if they first defeat Slovakia and then lose to the Faroe Isles while Yugoslavia beat Malta. It would be a set of results worthy of several stewards' inquiries.

The other is Italy, who face England in the final game in Group Two. The situation for England is the simple one of qualification, provided they avoid defeat in Rome. If that result were a draw, Scotland would have a better record than Italy unless Moldova beat Georgia and Poland, then Poland win in Georgia. Again, highly unlikely.

But, if Scotland only draw with Latvia, they could be pipped by Italy drawing with England regardless of other Group Two matches; by England even if they lose in Italy; and by Belgium if they beat Wales. Should England lose in Rome, they would still finish ahead of Belgium as long as the margins of a Belgian win over Wales and an England defeat in Italy do not exceed seven goals.

Scotland are due to play the Latvia game at Hibernian, though there is already a campaign afoot to move the game to a stadium larger than Easter Road's 16,218.

Wherever it is played, the Scotland coach, Craig Brown, insisted yesterday that there will be no complacency from his side. "The results were wonderful for us but we must not lose sight of the fact we still have to beat Latvia," Brown said. "It's only when that happens that we can be really sure we are through and may start to celebrate."

Italy's reaction to losing pole position in Group Two at the penultimate hurdle was predictably unforgiving, with the coach Cesare Maldini the focus for much newspaper criticism after his side's 0-0 draw in Georgia. "Someone should have told Maldini that a draw in Tbilisi was not a useful, old-fashioned away point but was in fact just the same as losing," thundered a front page leader in Gazzetta Dello Sport. "With all due respect, Maldini's Italy has in two not very difficult away ties - in which England picked up six points - managed to render that great Wembley result useless."

Many commentators blamed Maldini for passing on his fears, particularly about his team's lack of early season fitness, for not taking the Georgians seriously, and for not bringing on the in-form striker Filippo Inzaghi until near then end.

Maldini himself said: "We didn't reap our just reward. I've no complaints about the team, they gave their utmost. As for the substitutes, I didn't bring them in earlier because we were playing well in the second half."

England were given an early warning against complacency by Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola. "When Italy has its back to the wall, then it rises to the occasion and that's how it will be at the Olympic Stadium against the English," he said.

As the calculations were going into the night in Europe, three South American sides were securing their places at the finals. Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay all booked passages to France, leaving just one more place open in South America.

The biggest drama came in Santiago where Ariel Ortega, for some time hailed as the natural successor to Diego Maradona, orchestrated Argentina's dominated of a Chile side that boasted a 100 per cent home record.

Marcelo Gallardo put the visitors ahead, but the lead was cancelled out by Marcelo Salas. With five minutes remaining Claudio Lopez struck a dramatic winner, despite Chilean claims of offside. Television replays suggested that the referee was right.

For once Faustino Asprilla was not the scorer as Colombia beat lowly Venezuela 1-0, but he did provide the cross for the goal which was headed home by Wilmer Cabrera. The celebrations were somewhat tempered by a lacklustre performance in which their playmaker Carlos Valderrama began to look his age, 36.

Paraguay, whose style is more south London than south American, welcomed back their captain and goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert after a four-match suspension, and it was his free-kick, belted from the edge of his own penalty area, that was flicked on for Miguel Benitez's opening goal in their 2-1 defeat of Bolivia.

Uruguay, twice winners of the competition, and still able to provide a succession of highly talented exports to Europe, have been left with virtually no chance of qualifying after losing to Peru in Lima.

Alvaro Recoba, who has upstaged Ronaldo as the two begin careers with Internazionale, put Uruguay ahead in the first half, but the Peruvians responded with goals from Roberto Palacios and the confusingly named German Carty to give the home side an excellent chance of claiming the final South American qualifying spot.

Having already been though two coaches, the outlook for Uruguay's Roque Maspoli is not encouraging. Then again, it may be time for him to retire anyway. Maspoli is 79.