Friday, September 14, 2007
Ireland have three games left in the tournament and, rather than taking the opportunity to 'experiment' and thereby risk a further catastrophic fourth-place finish, we should approach all of them with the intention of winning. There is a useful precedent for this; two years ago, a post-Bertie Vogts Scotland team suddenly started performing in qualifying matches that were increasingly academic. In their final three matches they got a 1-1 draw at home to Italy and impressively defeated both Norway and Slovenia away, after having failed so badly at home to each team. The new-found spirit carried itself through to the current qualifying campaign, which the Scots started ominously with professional wins at home to the Faroe Islands and away to Lithuania. Nothing hugely impressive but, given the calamitous nature of the national team under Vogts, remarkable enough. When they defeated France at home last October people began to take notice and even subsequent defeats away to Ukraine and Italy had not completely dulled the Scottish challenge.
The level of professionalism in the Scottish set-up is an example to every single team in the entire world - armed with a group of players that make Ireland's pick look like Argentina, the team has ensured victory in all the easy games that no longer exist in international football. Shipping defeats away from home against the world champions and Ukraine is to be expected but the Scots still know how to brilliantly frustrate a team of the calibre of France as they did last night. Even if James McFadden's amazingly speculative long-range shot hadn't gone in last night, a scoreless draw would have been an exploit to match the French deadlocking of Italy in Milan on Saturday. Scotland were superb in every department and, just as the French played better than in their defeat at Hampden last year, so did the Scots. Their defensive holding was brilliant (and when it wasn't, Craig Gordon was) and they played themselves out of trouble elegantly. Walter Smith's rejuvenation of the national set-up survived his own shameful betrayal of both the team and his country, and Alex McLeish (a man already venerated by his former Celtic Park opposites Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan) has tightened the ship with remarkable poise. The Scots are ten years out of a major tournament now, and major tournaments need fans as fantastic as (most of) the Scots are. By the looks of it, the team wouldn't be out of place either. Here's hoping they make it.