Scotland's chance for real progress

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The Independent Online

As the calm of a sedate Glaswegian suburb was disturbed by the clamour for tickets to see his team take on Austria tonight, Craig Brown remained at Scotland's base by the sea, trawling through the latest intelligence on their World Cup opponents in an attempt to find a pearl among the red herrings.

Austrian reporters arriving at Troon after speaking to Brown's opposite number, Herbert Prohaska, were armed with stories which the Scotland manager felt obliged to take on board. The most interesting was that far from playing his outstanding creative player, Andreas Herzog, just off a lone striker, Prohaska intended to deploy him in midfield and have two up front.

Disinformation is a routine element in the build-up to such occasions, a fact which prevented Brown becoming too agitated by the reports. Having watched Austria with only the veteran Toni Polster in attack gain the best result in Group Four to date - a win in Sweden - he expected them to adopt the same formation at Celtic Park.

However, should the Austrians bring in another forward, late tactical adjustments would have to be made. Since Brown will not see Prohaska's line-up until 6.30pm, he must pick a side which can be restructured.

As maxims go, Brown prefers "different games require different strategies" to "never change a winning team". Despite Saturday's victory over Estonia, he had already decided to jettison Scot Gemmill in favour of John Collins, now free of suspension, but he left for last night's Under-21 match still wrestling with one selection dilemma.

It concerned midfield, where it could be that Paul Lambert will be asked to stick closer to Herzog than a tattoo. The former Motherwell player has man-marked the Austrian successfully when playing for Borussia Dortmund against Werder Bremen, for whom Herzog has scored 13 Bundesliga goals this season.

In the past, Rangers' Alan McLaren has subdued the likes of Roberto Baggio and Jari Litmanen in such a role. Bringing in Lambert might mean omitting Paul McStay on his home turf, yet Brown, mindful of the "brilliant" winner Herzog struck in Sweden, is unlikely to be swayed by sentiment.

The importance of the match can be gauged by the fact that Austria's optimum points total is currently 28, compared with the Scots' 26 and Sweden's 24. The sides drew 0-0 in August and it is likely to be fearfully close again: Scotland, who would go seven points clear at the top of the section, have yet to concede a goal in their five fixtures, while Austria have let in one in three.

Precisely the circumstances, Brown believes, in which a big, passionate crowd could tip the balance. The Scottish FA offices were besieged by ticket-seeking supporters yesterday, and the first international to be hosted by Celtic for 64 years was moving towards a 47,000 sell-out.

Stopping the Tartan Army becoming inebriated by visions of France next year would be pointless, but Brown warned that whatever happened tonight, there was still a lot of football to be played.

"If we're fortunate enough to win, you won't hear me saying we're through," he said. "But we'll be in a strong position."

SCOTLAND: (3-5-2, probable): Leighton (Hibernian); Calderwood (Tottenham), Hendry (Blackburn), Boyd (Celtic); Burley (Chelsea), Lambert (Borussia Dortmund) or McStay (Celtic), McAllister (Coventry), Collins (Monaco), T McKinlay (Celtic); Jackson (Hibernian), Gallacher (Blackburn).

AUSTRIA: (1-2-5-2): Konsel (Rapid Vienna); Feiersinger (Borussia Dortmund); Schottel (Rapid), Pfeffer (Austria Memphis); Schopp (Hamburg), Heraf, Stoger, (both Rapid), Herzog (Werder Bremen), Wetl (Porto); Polster (Cologne), Vastic (Sturm Graz).

Referee: N Levnikov (Russia).