Saturday September 8th saw the start of another campaign greeted with mixed emotions, disgruntled fans in the stands and general negativity on the part of the press. Craig Levein, starting his second qualifying tournament at the helm, the first being marred by a 4-6-0 formation in Prague against an average Czech Republic squad, looked bleak.
Levein, who has never endeared himself to the Tartan Army (Scotland’s fantastic, yet success famished fans), named Rangers’ midfielder Ian Black in the squad for the final friendly against Australia prior to qualification starting. Black, had actually been called up for the debacle in Jacksonville (Scotland’s 5-1 loss to the U.S. in May), but had to withdraw due to injury. Ordinarily, a Rangers player being called up to the Scotland setup is no surprise, but with Rangers, now being The Rangers Football Club, after the former was liquidated for a series of blunders and mismanagement over the past 20 years, it was a bone of contention. Levein, who had publically stated, he would find it hard to name Lee Wallace (Rangers’ left back) in the Scotland squad due to the lack of quality he would face in the Scottish 3rd Division where Rangers currently find themselves. However, tightening the noose around his neck according to some, Levein called up Ian Black, who plays in the same 3rd Division team as Wallace. Confused? So were most people.
Either way, it was not the ideal start for the “Road to Rio” that was needed or envisioned for the Scotland boss. In addition, Levein, with his inability to forgive and forget, much to the dismay of the fans, means that Steven Fletcher – top scorer for relegated Wolves in the EPL and a recent $19 million dollar purchase for Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland – watches at home from the sofa. Fletcher, prior to a Scotland friendly 2 years ago, text messaged a member of the Scotland staff to inform them that he did not want to be selected to play in the game for one reason or another. Levein, who took severe umbrage to this, has cast Fletcher as a leper and has not selected him in a squad since. Granted, Fletcher could have handled this better, but let bygones be bygones and get the best team on the field. Furthermore, Scotland’s latest goal-den boy, Jordan Rhodes, who joined Blackburn for $12 million last month after a 40 goal season for Huddersfield last term, is looked upon as a bit-part-player as opposed to a genuine starter despite his goal and good showing against Australia.
Faced with the typical Scottish pessimism, a tough group featuring the talented Belgians, Serbians, and Croatians, topped off with the stuffy Macedonians and enigmatic Welsh, hopes were not high. Scotland, opening up with Serbia and Macedonia at Hampden (Scotland’s National Stadium), look to get off on the right foot by getting maximum points in a group where home results can determine success or failure.
Scotland, down, but certainly not out, entertained the workmanlike Macedonians on Tuesday. Levein, made 3 changes to the side that had tied the Serbians. In came Celtic’s young, lively James Forest for Norwich’s Robert Snodgrass, Wigan’s talented Shaun Maloney for Liverpool’s Charlie Adam, and QPR’s quick forward Jamie Mackie for Everton’s Steven Naismith. These changes represented a more attacking mindset; however, many were left wondering why Rhodes was left on the bench for the hard working, yet ineffective Kenny Miller of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Miller, a great player for Scotland in the past due to his tireless running and work effort, but seeing his years advance could be seen as a reason for him to take a back seat to the up and coming talent.
As darkness settled at 10pm on Tuesday night, Scotland was left to rue another poor result. Macedonia, ranked 97th in the world, had come to Hampden in an organized fashion, taken the lead in controversial circumstances as their forward looked offside, but held on for a 1-1 tie. Scotland expected 6 points, demanded 4, but at the end of the first week of play had 2 points on the board in a group where home points are a must.
The Road to Rio looks over before it has even started. Next month Scotland faces the Belgians in Brussels and the Welsh in Cardiff. I’m afraid to say, if results do not improve against, on the face of it, two better teams than Scotland faced in Glasgow, it could be another disappointing Summer come 2014 for the Tartan Army!