Scotland poised to reap rewards

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The Independent Online
Scottish football scarcely had time to savour the national side's 4-1 defeat of Belarus before news came of the proposed breakaway by Premier Division clubs. Come tomorrow night, however, the focus will switch from the future of the Motherwells and Montroses to events in a faraway former Soviet republic.

Belarus against Austria at the Dynamo Stadium in Minsk will be monitored as eagerly as if it were taking place at Ibrox or Tannadice. Scotland need a substantial favour from the team they trounced at Aberdeen if they are to avoid the purgatory of play-offs for a place in the World Cup finals.

Austria's bruising victory over Sweden has made them favourites to win Group Four. Provided they beat Belarus home and away, Herbert Prohaska's team will qualify automatically for France.

Belarus' record is not calculated to encourage optimism among the Scots, whose more realistic target is either to advance as the runners-up with the best record or to win the two-leg play-off which is the very least that three points against Latvia in Edinburgh next month would guarantee.

Gary McAllister, whose penalty settled Scotland's visit to Minsk in June, said: "It's a difficult place to get a result and the pitch isn't conducive to good football. Belarus will have key players back from suspension and the Austrians will have Anton Pfeffer and Michael Konsel banned [both were sent off on Saturday], which must affect them."

The Belarus coach, Mikhail Vergeyenko, also offered hope to his opposite number, Craig Brown. "I saw Scotland play Austria in April and I liked the Scottish team more. We hope we can play better at home and help you."

After all the uncertainty and acrimony surrounding Sunday's fixture, Brown had done his usual meticulous job in preparing the players. He also showed a masterful touch in his use of substitutes, one of whom, David Hopkin, made a startling impact after replacing McAllister.

If Scotland's display did not quite merit the praise heaped on it by a press which sees everything in extremes, there could be no mistaking the balance their manager had produced.

First there was poise. Notwithstanding the presence of McAllister and John Collins, this quality was most evident in the contribution of Paul Lambert. The Dortmund midfielder has allied precision and vision to his customary industry. Wim Jansen, who had hoped to buy him for Celtic, must wonder how he was ever allowed to elude the club he supports.

Second, less surprisingly, came passion. The two goals from Kevin Gallacher, who recently expressed an admiration for Ally McCoist's knack of being able to score even when off form, were the just reward for an afternoon of lung-bursting effort.

As if to underline his point about McCoist, Rangers' talismanic striker set up Scotland's second with a mis-hit shot from an offside position. Hopkin bundled the ball in, and further demonstrated his value with a stunning late individual goal.

With his gummy grin, framed by fangs, Hopkin evoked memories of Joe Jordan, who also listed Morton and Leeds on his CV. Jordan's penchant for important goals was largely responsible for the fact that many Scots now expect to share in the four-yearly global jamboree as of right.

If, on this occasion, qualification comes down to goal difference - the first criterion before goals scored and results between the two teams - Hopkin's inspired intervention may prove equally significant.