If you have aspirations to win a qualifying group then it’s fair to say you need to win your home games. Gordon Strachan and a couple of the players have suggested tonight’s match against Lithuania is not a so-called “must win” fixture. But I disagree.
The reason I think Gordon has made that comment is because Lithuania, under my old Hearts team-mate Edgaras Jankauskas, are a lot better than many people think.
It’s a solid looking Scotland squad for this double header, with Slovakia to come. I’m delighted Shaun Maloney has been recalled. Shaun was terrific in the last qualifying campaign. He is a good option to have, possibly from the bench.
If we are going to unlock Lithuania’s tight defence then he could be crucial in that he can play a little reverse pass or a quick one-two.
Lithuania, when attacked, play in a very compact manner, defending the width of their box. I feel the wide areas will therefore be crucial. Not just the wide midfield players, but also the full-backs, Callum Paterson and Andrew Robertson.
Gordon has a decision to make in terms of who occupies the wide midfield positions because they will have to come inside and play at times. Slick, intricate, decisive passing to cut open a very tight defence will be required. This will allow Paterson and Robertson space on the outside – I think that’s where we will get joy.
Gordon might very well start with the three players who operated in behind the striker in the Malta win: Matt Ritchie on the left and Oliver Burke on the right, with Robert Snodgrass in the centre.
Burke looked more comfortable out wide against Malta in the second-half. As a winger, I know being asked to play the No 10 role is a dream because you have a little more freedom and know you can take balls in at close quarters. But I don’t see Burke as that type of player.
Gordon played him there because he felt Oliver’s powerful running would be effective from the deeper positions and going beyond our striker. But I don’t think it quite worked.
However comfortably we defeated Malta in the end, the message I need to underline is: Do not underestimate the Lithuanians. I studied their last performance in preparation for tonight’s match. It was a 2-2 draw against Slovenia, where they had been 2-0 up. Conceding an equaliser in added time stopped them winning all three points. Anyone watching that game will know this is going to be tough.
Lithuania are developing quite an industrious style and look very organised. They defend in numbers, work hard, and are aggressive on the counter attack.
A lot was said about the Lithuanians in their time at Hearts, not all of it complimentary. I had no problems with them. In fact, l liked them. I was impressed with just how pronounced their work ethic was. Edgaras was the top dog. He is the most decorated player in Lithuania’s history, including winning a European Cup winner’s medal under Jose Mourinho at Porto.
I saw first hand the aura he had and respect he commanded from the other Lithuanian players at Hearts. He’s clearly still held in high regard in his homeland and this current team look like they all want to play for him.
I could tell that by the way they are working for each other. He’s been able to provoke an impressive reaction in the dressing-room already.
Jankauskus is an imposing figure at 6ft 4in and not one to be messed with... unless you’re a little angry Scotsman.
I hit him one day at training. I had sustained a medial knee ligament injury on my second debut for Hearts against Kilmarnock in 2006 and had just come back to training. I always train quite aggressively and I caught Edgaras.
He wanted a foul and there was no foul given so I went away with the ball. Clearly annoyed, he came in and clocked me from behind as I was taking a shot. I snapped. I got up and let him have one!
Everyone ran in and broke it up. Unfortunately it wasn’t over, his lip was bleeding and he was saying “we will sort this out, it is not finished” in true Rocky-style.
“Anytime!” I replied. After training he said: ‘Well... let’s go then!’ By this time I was having second thoughts.
We were walking off the field and Edgaras gestured towards the woods: “We’ll have it out there”. As we were walking to this designated place I was thinking to myself: ‘I don’t have a lot of time to worry the big man’. So I said: “Well, you better make it a good one because every time we see each other we will be doing this again!”
I knew straight away he thought: ‘This guy is crazy’. He stopped in his tracks. I said: “Janker, I am just back from injury and you caught me from behind. How do you think I am going to react? I have been out for months.”
He said: “I’m sorry, but I still want to break your nose.” I replied: “well go for it”. He smiled: “You are crazy, my friend”. I agreed: “Yes, a wee bit. And I am sorry for punching you, I shouldn’t have reacted like that.”
Thankfully he opted for compassion. We shook hands and went back to the dressing-room, where the boys already had a ring set up and were doing the whole ‘Rocky’ music thing. We had a laugh and since then started getting on really well.
I saw my old friend again this week when he kindly agreed to do a feature for our Sky Sports coverage tonight. He’s still in good shape and thankfully wasn’t looking for a re-match. Good luck Edgaras. But because they are a must-take three points for Scotland, just not this evening.
l Scotland v Lithuania is live on Sky Sports 2 at 7pm.