Scots put gratitude to one side

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The Independent Online
Scotland almost took their leave of the World Cup this week, the Scottish FA's procrastination over the visit of Belarus to Aberdeen having led them to the brink of withdrawal. Instead, they may well have one foot in the finals come tomorrow evening.

The dilemma over whether to persist with the original fixture - scheduled for 3pm today, as the body of Diana, Princess of Wales nears its last resting place - was finally solved when the Belarussians agreed to switch to 2pm tomorrow. Scottish gratitude will be suspended while Craig Brown's side seek the victory that could put them within one win of France.

The advantage of the new arrangements, as far as the Scots are concerned, is that the qualifying picture should be far clearer by the time Pittodrie opens its gates. Austria and Sweden, the other contenders to advance from Group Four, meet tonight. A draw in Vienna would leave the Scots needing "only" to beat Belarus and Latvia in Edinburgh next month to finish top.

Scotland's resources were already stretched by the unavailability of a key forward, Darren Jackson, and the defensive linchpin, Colin Hendry. They have now discounted Blackburn's Billy McKinlay, whose calf strain has not improved, and Celtic's Jackie McNamara, injured in training.

So the team virtually picked itself, except in one critical area: goalkeeper. Brown revealed yesterday that despite the tempting presence of Rangers' Andy Goram he had decided to give Jim Leighton his 82nd cap - the 39-year- old's first on his own club's ground.

"There's so little between them that it finally became a question of being loyal to the man in possession," Brown said. "It's been very difficult having to tell one of the world's best keepers he's not playing. But the truth is that it would be unfair on a guy who's done so well for us - Jim was immense in our game in Sweden."

Gary McAllister, who has not played since 11 August, should be fit. John Collins will partner him, even though he has started only once this season. Kevin Gallacher, whose 31 caps have been interspersed with serious injuries, finds himself undisputed first-choice striker after netting five times in Blackburn's whirlwind start.

Brown will impress on his players the need to avoid any repetition of the 0-0 draw with Estonia that could yet force Scotland into a play-off. Belarus were ranked alongside San Marino and Monaco when the draw was made, but two years ago, in the qualifying for Euro 96, they defeated the Netherlands 1-0. In the return, the Dutch did not score the only goal until seven minutes from time.

When Scotland went to Minsk, in June, they needed a McAllister penalty to prevail on a poor pitch. Brown has since watched Belarus tackle Sweden, and though they lost 2-1, he was impressed by the difference in their technique on a better surface. He anticipates Petr Kachuro, of Sheffield United, operating as a lone attacker and counsels the need for patience.

Amid the sense of relief in Scotland that their national team can no longer be portrayed as pariahs, there remains a feeling that the SFA, in particular its chief executive, Jim Farry, handled this week's events insensitively.

Farry confirmed yesterday that the SFA had come close to pulling out of the tournament. Questioned on Radio 4's Today programme about the calls for his resignation, he said: "In the life of an SFA secretary I can assure you that where calls are made from various sources, sometimes those sources are not in possession of the facts."

The Belarus coach, Mikhail Vergeyenko, fuelled the controversy by claiming that his federation had told the SFA last Sunday that they would play "on any day". He added: "It wasn't until Wednesday at 11pm that our president got a call asking for the game to be this Sunday. He immediately said OK."

In the aftermath of a Scotland success, the pressure on Farry would inevitably ease. Anything less and his role in the uncertainty over the fiasco may come under renewed scrutiny.

SCOTLAND (probable, 3-5-2): Leighton (Aberdeen); Dailly (Derby), Boyd (Celtic), Calderwood (Tottenham); Burley (Celtic), Lambert (B Dortmund), McAllister (Coventry, capt), Collins (Monaco), T McKinlay (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn), Durie (Rangers).

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