Scotland in need of luck

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The Independent Online
Scotland must break the mould twice over if they are to make a positive start to their Group A campaign against the Netherlands at Villa Park today.

In each of the three tournaments in which their manager, Craig Brown, has been involved, Scotland opened with a 1-0 defeat. Ten years ago, as part of Alex Ferguson's staff at the Mexico World Cup, he saw Denmark squeeze past them. Four years later, when Brown was No 2 to Andy Roxburgh, it was Costa Rica's turn, while, at Euro 92 they lost to the Dutch in Gothenberg.

"We didn't have a single scrap of luck in any of those games," Brown said yesterday. "Against Costa Rica, for example, we made 19 scoring chances without getting a break. Now is the time to reverse that."

The time may be right; the auguries are not auspicious. The Netherlands have beaten Scotland in their last three meetings, starting with Dennis Bergkamp's late winner at the outset of the Swedish finals. The most recent Scottish victory came in their ill-starred 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

What may prove to be in the Scots' favour is the loss, through injury, of what Brown's opposite number, Guus Hiddink, has described as "the nerve centre" of his team. The suspended Danny Blind sits out the match, as must the injured Frank de Boer, which is likely to force the Dutch to bring in Johan de Kock, a part-timer who works as a road engineer, as a defensive marker.

The absence of two players through whom the Netherlands' Ajax-dominated side originate attacks will place additional responsibility on Edgar Davids. Brown expects the Milan-bound midfielder to switch from a left-sided role to the base of their "diamond" formation, with Clarence Seedorf as its apex.

Patrick Kluivert is not sufficiently recovered from knee surgery to start, while Hiddink also has doubts over Peter Hoekstra's fitness. He may give way to Johan Cruyff's son, Jordi, a change Brown did not see as weakening the team. "I envy the fact that they have numerous wide attackers to pick from, even with Marc Overmars out," he said. "We have no comparable players at home."

Scotland are free of injury worries, although Brown has had to choose in goal between Andy Goram, arguably his one world-class performer, and Jim Leighton, who did not concede a goal in his seven qualifying appearances. He has made his decision - almost certainly in Goram's favour - and informed the players, but would not share the information with the Dutch via the media.

The only other areas of doubt concern who fills the right wing-back position, and who partners Gordon Durie up front. In the former, Craig Burley's effervescence may get the vote over Stewart McKimmie's experience. As for the latter, John Spencer's livewire qualities, which could be invaluable in preventing the Dutch building from the back, may earn preference over Scott Booth.

Scotland will probably favour a zonal system. Brown, who watched the Dutch beat the Republic of Ireland "in second gear" last week, must be aware their their opponents are so fluid, so flexible, that his team would risk being pulled horribly out of shape were they to attempt man-marking.

Nevertheless, it is hard to resist the conclusion that how the Dutch play - how they cope with the pressure - will dictate the course of the contest. "We need everyone to be on peak form," Brown admitted. "If that happens, I don't think they'll beat us. If we fall short of that, they're capable of beating anyone in the world.''

One was reminded of Roxburgh's fate-tempting declaration six years ago: "We have nothing to fear from Costa Rica." At least on this occasion, Scotland will be in their preferred role as underdogs, snapping at the heels of one of the favourites.

NETHERLANDS (probable, 3-1-2-1-3): Van der Sar (Ajax); Reiziger (Ajax), De Kock (Roda JC Kerkrade), Bogarde (Ajax); Davids (Ajax); R De Boer (Ajax), Witschge (Ajax); Seedorf (Sampdoria); Taument (Feyenoord), Bergkamp (Arsenal), Cruyff (Barcelona).

SCOTLAND (probable, 3-5-2): Goram (Rangers); Calderwood (Tottenham), Hendry (Blackburn), Boyd (Celtic); Burley (Chelsea), McCall (Rangers), McAllister (Leeds), Collins (Celtic), T McKinlay (Celtic); Spencer (Chelsea), Durie (Rangers).

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