Scotland's battle against theft and injury

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Scotland, already shaken by an injury to Blackburn's Colin Hendry, ran into further misfortune last night upon their arrival here for tomorrow's European Championship qualifying match against Greece, the Group Eight leaders.

The day started ominously for the Scots, when their defensive lynchpin pulled up clutching his left knee during training in Malta, and it took a turn for the worse after the squad touched down in the cradle of civilisation. On collecting their luggage, seven of the Scottish Football Association party found their bags had been broken into. Clothing, currency and compact discs were among the items allegedly stolen, while equipment used to make videos of Scotland's games was also missing.

The discovery followed a 90-minute delay between disembarking from their plane and the appearance of baggage on the carousel. The police were called, and the British Consulate informed.

From a security standpoint, Scotland's attempt to reach the finals in England 18 months from now appears unusually ill-fated. Before their only previous away game in the competition - against Finland in Helskinki last September - the hotel rooms of threeplayers were raided by thieves as they trained.

While investigations continue, Craig Brown's players must put the incident behind them tonight as they hold their final practice session at the match venue, the Olympic Stadium. The session will determine whether Hendry plays, or whether his problems will allow Craig Levein to make a dramatic return, wearing the badge of the body from whose domestic fixtures he is currently banned.

Hendry limped out of Scotland's pre-flight work-out with an apparent recurrence of the injury which required surgery in the autumn, and caused him to miss last month's home draw against Russia. Since he could not recall having engaged in a jarring challenge, the towering centre-back attributed the subsequent swelling to the bone-hard nature of the pitch.

Typically, he is determined to play, saying: "This game is so important that they will have to strap me up and throw me on. It's too big to miss."

However, Brown will require evidence of rather more than fighting spirit this evening. "I need Colin, but I can't afford to have anyone out there who is less than 100 per cent fit," the Scotland manager said.

Should he lose Hendry, Brown will be forced to turn to Levein, now half-way through a suspension imposed after a fight with a Heart of Midlothian colleague during a pre-season friendly. Levein last played a club game on 29 October, but was not unduly embarrassed by the Russian forwards, and has stepped up his training to be ready for just such an emergency.

Even if Hendry recovers, Levein may join him as part of a three-man unit also involving Alan McLaren. If he does not, Brown will probably pair the one-time Hearts team-mates in the middle of a flat back-four. Duncan Ferguson, who completed a £4.3m move from Rangers to Everton this week, will almost certainly collect his fifth cap after a 20-month absence, and looks set to partner John McGinlay in attack.

According to the latest Fifa rankings, the match is merely the visit of the world's 30th-best national side to the team listed two places behind them. Both countries trail the likes of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Zambia and Ghana, yet the outcome of their meeting is potentially crucial to the question of qualification.

Greece have won all three games so far, as against the Scots' two wins and a draw. Defeat would therefore cast the visitors five points adrift, with arguably their most arduous task, away to Russia, next on the agenda in the spring.

The Greeks suffered a chastening experience in last summer's World Cup finals, losing all three matches and failing to score, but new management has brought on several outstanding young players. Brown, who watched the Scottish champions, Rangers, lose both legs of a European Cup tie to AEK Athens, was particularly taken with Michail Kasapis, a left-sided midfielder.

"He is the only player I've seen this season who has not only nullified the threat of Brian Laudrup, but actually had Laudrup watching him," Brown said. Another who has impressed him is Nikolaos Machlas, whose "strolling" style he compares to that of Dennis Bergkamp.

Football, pages 42, 43

Comments