Craig Levein may not be disheartened by Scotland’s start to their World Cup Qualifying campaign, but the Tartan Army have every reason to be.
After drawing 1-1 away from home in a World Cup Qualifier, one could be forgiven for expecting Macedonia’s head coach, Cedomir Janevski, to be positive; Macedonia have never qualified for a major tournament since their establishment as a playing nation following the split from Yugoslavia in 1993. Only the last batch of FIFA rankings saw them enter the top 100 nations; they currently sit 97th in the footballing world order.
Taking this into account, to the untrained eye it would seem surprising that Janevski’s principle emotion after Tuesday night’s draw at Hampden Park was one of disappointment; regret that they were not flying back from Scotland with all three points safely secured in the overhead locker. Although Nikolche Noveski appeared offside when he tucked in the game’s opening goal after only eleven minutes, the visitors had sufficient threat, particularly in Ivan Trichkovski and the lively Agim Ibraimi, to merit their lead and to justify Janevski’s post match comments bemoaning having to settle for a draw.
Like Janevski, Scotland manager Craig Levein admitted to being “a touch disappointed”, but defiantly added that he was “not downhearted in the slightest”. Levein should definitely feel disappointed that his side failed to dispose of a Macedonia outfit whose only victory in the last year was a 1-0 home result again Lithuania in an international friendly. Far more concerning for Scottish supporters to hear is his second remark. Levein bolstered his steadfast lack of downheartedness by assuring that “we can play better than that and will do in our next match.”
While all signs point to Scotland as a nation being disappointed by the draw with Macedonia, evidence to back up Levein’s upbeat perspective on future matches looks distinctly scarce. Scotland’s last competitive victory was just a month later than Macedonia’s, a 1-0 triumph away to lowly Lichtenstein. In arguably the toughest World Cup Qualification group Scotland’s performances so far have failed to deliver, never mind inspire. The worry is that, with the possible exception of matches against a Wales side that continues to plummet to new depths under Chris Coleman, looking at the fixtures to come, it is hard to see Scotland amassing many more points than the two they currently have.
Belgium, Croatia, and a return trip to Serbia all await Levein’s men before this time next year and it is difficult to see where the points are going to come from. All three opposing sides are of sufficient standard to appear in Brazil in two years time, yet for Scotland it is their own side they should be focussing on in what will be an uphill struggle to give body to what many are already dashing as empty words spoken by Levein on Tuesday evening.
Levein himself must take responsibility for some of the problems the Scottish national side are encountering at the moment. While the general downturn in Scottish football’s fortunes is patently due to wider problems, on the field the current Scotland side are frequently frustrating to watch; they are lackadaisical at the back and, more damningly, lack fluency and creativity going forward. Macedonia frequently created good chances, often orchestrated by the experienced Goran Pandev, and numerous times the outstanding Allan McGregor had to save well from midfielders bursting into the area. Conversely, Scotland’s best chances came from set plays, or simply swinging the ball into the area hoping substitute Jordan Rhodes’ excellent movement could reap some kind of reward.
For this aspect of Tuesday’s display, the responsibility has to rest with Levein. In a match Scotland really needed to win, at home against beatable opposition, Levein went with just the one recognised striker in the shape of Kenny Miller. Miller did score, but his simple finish shouldn’t mask his movement, or lack thereof, which failed to stretch a stubborn Macedonian defence. The striker’s goal was just his 17th at international level, but playing his club football for Vancouver Whitecaps at the age of 32, many would question whether he should even have been on the field to score at all.
Steven Fletcher of Sunderland would, to a neutral, appear to be the obvious choice to lead the line. Levein however has stated Fletcher will never appear again for the national side while he is in charge, a remark stemming from a dispute that began last year. Highly rated Jordan Rhodes eventually entered the fray with 24 minutes remaining after the Tartan Army had been chanting for a striker for some time. Levein feels that Rhodes needs protecting at international level but, for a striker who has scored just shy of 100 career goals, such a statement must be incredibly frustrating, particularly when Scotland have totalled just 13 points from their last possible 33, scoring only 10 goals under Levein in the process. Levein must realise that goals are needed, and, in spite of personal differences, Rhodes and Fletcher are strikers that could provide them.
Scotland need a change of emphasis, and fast, if they are to have any chance of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Hampton Park can be an intimidating stadium to play away in, and Scotland must ensure it becomes so, not simply by being defensively tighter, but by being more expansive and expressive when going forward. True, Levein is not blessed with attacking talent, but in Rhodes, Adam, and Maloney to name a few, he has sufficient forward threat to merit a more aggressive attacking outlook at home. When all is said and done, Scotland need to throw greater intent behind their attacking approach and actively begin matches at home looking to threaten opposition as a priority, rather than keep them out. Such an outlook, demanded by the fans, is crucial to Levein’s survival and, more importantly, Scotland’s survival as a competitive force in Group A.
Anyone who witnessed Tuesday’s draw would have been left in no doubt as to fans’ opinions of Scotland under Levein. If the boos at Macedonia’s opening goal were damaging to Levein’s prospects in charge, the cacophony of negativity that greeted the final whistle could be seen as the first of the nails in Levein’s proverbial coffin. The fans clearly do not share the manager’s positive sentiments, and with a far from united dressing room, the last thing Levein needs is further aggravation from the stands.
Yet aggravation is what he will undoubtedly receive unless he changes his, and the side’s, approach to their remaining qualifiers. Levein is a passionate, experienced manager in Scottish football, but this is surely the hardest challenge he has faced to date. “We have to get victories at some point, I accept that” said Levein on Tuesday. “Playing away from home and sitting in might suit us.” At this rate Levein very well might not be the man making such tactical decisions by the time those fixtures arrive. The road to Brazil 2014 has only just begun but, unless things improve, it looks like it will be a dead end for Scotland.