Scots must see off lesser light: Football

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The saga of Scotland and Estonia, which reaches its concluding episode when the World Cup comes to an excited Ayrshire town today, has been a story of "the lights are on but there's no one there" as far as Craig Brown's team are concerned.

It was literally true in Tallinn last October, when the great floodlight feud led Scotland to abandon the stadium before Estonia belatedly showed their faces. And no less so in a figurative sense as they produced a dim- witted display in last month's re-match amid the throbbing neon of Monte Carlo.

This afternoon's Group Four fixture, the first international at Rugby Park since 1910, has assumed an importance Brown cannot have anticipated before the 0-0 draw in Monaco. A repetition of that result would be "a devastating blow", the Scotland manager admitted yesterday, though in so far as it would confirm Estonia's capacity to damage others, "not the end of the world".

The Scots' fate is still in their own hands. If they beat Estonia, who are not ranked among the top 100 teams on the planet, and follow up with a victory over Austria at Celtic Park on Wednesday, they could all but seal their passage to France next year by avoiding defeat in Sweden on 30 April.

That might sound a tall order but, as Brown pointed out, Scotland have kept the opposition out in 13 of the last 14 competitive matches. The body blows inflicted by Messrs Gascoigne and Shearer last June remain the only goals conceded. So much for dodgy Scottish goalkeepers.

However, a clean sheet today will be meaningful only if Scotland have managed to mess up the one protected by the massive Mart Poom. His Schmeichel- like aura of invincibility in the first meeting helped persuade Derby to pay pounds 1.5m for him this week.

Brown maintains that he will play a positive formation similar to the one found wanting in Monaco, using three out-and-out forwards. Darren Jackson, who missed the last match, has impressed with his freshness after suspension and injury and will join John McGinlay and Kevin Gallacher in trying to pierce a massed defence. Ally McCoist, out of favour at Rangers yet referred to by Brown as "our talisman", will probably begin on the bench.

Brown is looking for "an imposing performance" from Gary McAllister. The captain, he said, had shown a vitality in training which made nonsense of suggestions that Coventry's relegation struggle was a poor preparation for an occasion when Scotland need to be upbeat. If Estonia again close down McAllister quickly, a sharper display from Paul McStay will be required.

McAllister and Colin Calderwood must avoid the yellow card if they are to face Austria. Wednesday's match will also be a factor in whether or not Colin Hendry starts today. The Blackburn defender, who would share with Calderwood the task of picking up Estonia's lone attacker, has been playing with a groin injury that requires surgery.

"I never believe we'll lose, but we must keep our discipline and not get frustrated," Brown said. "I hope we've learned from what happened in Monte Carlo. A goal in the last minute is as good as one in the first.''

A sell-out crowd of 18,000 will trust that such brinkmanship is not necessary. Meanwhile, Brown is aware that the volume of support against Austria depends on their extinguishing one of the lesser lights today. Around 30,000 tickets have been sold, 17,000 short of the turn-out at Ibrox for Sweden in November. "To get a crowd like that," he said, "we have to earn it.''

SCOTLAND (3-4-3 probable): Leighton (Hibernian); Calderwood (Tottenham), Hendry (Blackburn), Boyd (Celtic); Burley (Chelsea), McStay (Celtic), G McAllister (Coventry), T McKinlay (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn), Jackson (Hibernian), McGinlay (Bolton).