IN A city where lightning shards streaked across the sky, Gordon Strachan has challenged his Scotland players to face their fears and rise to the challenge of performing in one of the most inhospitable venues in Europe.
An electric storm shook Zagreb yesterday. Against this dramatic backdrop, Strachan continued to prepare for a clash against World Cup qualifying rivals Croatia, who have lost only once in the capital city since becoming independent in 1991.
A pre-game training session lasted 30 minutes longer than the scheduled hour as Strachan put an unfamiliar-looking team through their paces. “I really don’t think we could have put any more into it than we have,” he said yesterday.
Now, all that is left is one last team-talk, during which Strachan will remind his players that this is their chance to make an impression on not only him, but also Igor Stimac, the Croatia manager. The countdown to tonight’s game has been framed by dismissive comments that have reportedly emanated from within the Croatian camp.
“The thing we will talk about is to remind them; they are here, not just to be part of it, but to be a good player,” said Strachan. “You are here to progress. Wherever you want to go in life every game like this you have to progress and learn.
“You have to stand up and say, ‘right I really want to be the best player on this pitch. I really want to walk away with the Croat manager talking about me as a player’.
“They have to be brave. There are times in your career when you have to be. Sometimes they are not major games. Your career can change on small games. But there are big games as well. This might be one of them for somebody.
“I think if you look back at any footballer’s career you ask, how did they behave under pressure?” he added
“How did they behave when they really needed to perform?
“So it’s one of those games. It’s in periods like this when you find out people’s true character.”
He, too, is under the microscope, he realises. “Did you actually look at the fixtures?” Roy Keane asked recently when they met. “No, not really,” Strachan admitted. With two defeats in his opening two competitive fixtures, the manager’s reign is in need of a fillip. After this evening, arduous-looking qualifying games against Belgium and Croatia at home and away to Macedonia remain, while a trip to Wembley to face England also awaits in August.
As far as Strachan is concerned, the honour of managing Scotland eclipses any sense of dread. However, he concedes, it would be preferable to have been in a position to pick his best side on at least one occasion to date. “Most of us would feel that if we had a settled squad we would feel better about ourselves,” he said, as he reflected on the seven call-offs that have disrupted his latest squad.
He employed some gallows humour yesterday. “You go to the cup final and say, ‘right, I’ll go along and watch the call-offs. That’s where we are at this moment and I can understand that.”
“I feel as if we’re on a kind of plateau here,” he added. “I’m still having a look about and seeing everybody because we’ve had so many different people in the squad. If you look at Croatia’s squad it’s the same group who turn up normally all the time. We don’t have that luxury.
“Our squad keeps changing and that’s the problem we’ve got. We’re searching for the best team. You don’t want to bring it up because it sounds like an excuse but we have missed so many big players over the last three games but if we had the same squad then we could pick the same players.”
Stimac has even commented on the state of affairs, having made the point that it is almost impossible to predict Scotland’s team, so often has it changed in recent months. Croatia, by contrast, are dependably predictable, which could be one reason why they are positioned 70 places above Scotland in the rankings.
Strachan’s problems were further illustrated last week when he learned the news that Kris Commons was retiring from international football, to “spend more time with his family”. The cynics have been given ample opportunity to scoff when the player tweeted a picture of him jetting off to Las Vegas with teammates in the week Scotland are trying to earn a result from Croatia, something which recent history suggests is one of the toughest tasks in world football.
Strachan was asked whether Croatia’s world ranking place of No 4 was an accurate reflection of their worth. “I think they are up there, I really do,” he said. “You can debate the rankings but they are never too far away from the truth.”
Scotland must cope with the threat posed by Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic, who helped his Bayern Munich side become European champions at Wembley last month. Strachan will hope an inexperienced Leigh Griffiths can rise to the challenge of playing against one of the top teams in international football, and perhaps this says it all – Griffiths, for all his talent and explosive shooting prowess, is due to return to Wolves and play third-tier football in England next season. Croatia, meanwhile, will have someone Strachan compared to Lionel Messi leading their line.
“Everybody is aware of Mandzukic unless you come from Planet Zog,” said Strachan. “You know what he does, how he plays. I know what he does, but I can’t stop him.
“It’s like Messi,” he added. “People know what he does but nobody can stop him. We will try our best. The longer we keep the ball, then the less chance of the other team doing well.”
Of course, this is the new reality now. In Strachan’s time as a player, he looked over his shoulder and saw the likes of Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish standing behind him in the tunnel. “This is not a problem, who are we taking on again?” he remembers thinking. The only time Strachan says he felt vastly inferior was when Scotland were taking on Brazil.
“I was watching them [Dalglish and Souness] winning European Cups,” he added. “They were players who played in big European games. And that is the secret of success, get very good players around you.” Sadly for Scotland, most of the very good players tend to be standing in the opponents’ half at kick-off time.
At least, that will be the case this evening.
New skipper Morrison will use hosts’ remarks as motivation
NEW Scotland captain James Morrison made a quick first impression yesterday as he stood up for his team-mates following reports of disrespectful comments that are said to have emanated from the Croatian camp.
Morrison was quick to protect players whose ability has been placed in question by the hosts ahead of tonight’s World Cup qualifying fixture. “We’re going to use that as motivation,” Morrison promised. “I think we’ve got to do that. Nobody likes to be disrespectful. We know they’re a good team but they don’t need to go about it the way they’re doing it.
“It’s an opportunity for new players who haven’t been playing to come in and show [what they can do],” he added. “They say don’t talk, just play in football. We’re just going to concentrate on our game and look forward to it.”
George, the Scottish grandfather who means he qualifies for the international team, is sadly no longer alive to see Morrison become the first English-born captain of the international side since Bruce Rioch in the late 1970s. “He will be looking down on me, giving me support,” he said.
“I still have cousins in Scotland, I’ve got quite a few, so they will all be watching,” Morrison added. “I spoke to a few of them recently and I think they are happy for me. My auntie works in a library [in Scotland] and she’s really happy.”
From reading reports in newspapers, Morrison says he was aware that he was one of three likely candidates to be give the captain’s armband in the absence of the likes of Scott Brown, Kenny Miller and Gary Caldwell. However, it was not until he was called away from the dinner table earlier this week at Mar Hall that he knew for certain that he was set to create a little bit of history this evening. At first, he thought Gordon Strachan had called him away to give him a row.
“When I got the call, I thought I was in trouble,” he said. “I was a bit shocked. After that, I was delighted and on cloud nine.
“I was eating my dinner and he just said, ‘can I have a word’. So I went out. I thought I was in trouble. I came back and the lads are saying ‘what was that for?’ I said ‘oh nothing, nothing’. But it was a proud moment.”
He has been besieged by phone calls from those wishing to congratulate him but a message from one person in particular has meant the most to him.
“Darren Fletcher’s trying to get hold of me at the moment, which is nice of him,” said Morrison, with reference to the player who would be wearing the armband were he not suffering from a long-term illness. “I’ll speak to him. I’ve got a lot of respect for Darren. He’s always been by my side from when I first came into the squad. He’s a great player as well. He’s always talking and encouraging.”
According to Morrison, the honour of being named captain is further evidence that he was right to turn his back on England and elect to play for Scotland. Roy Hodgson, who appointed him skipper for the first time at West Bromwich Albion, is now manager of England, and would bound to have been interested in calling Morrison up.
Fortunately for Scotland, George Burley got there first, and Morrison made his debut in 2008. He has been a quietly effective member of the side ever since. Morrison stressed to reporters that he is not about to turn into a shrieking madman on account of being given the armband.
“I’m not going to change, I’m not going to change the way I am,” he said. “I’m not going to rant or rave. I’m just going to do my normal bit, play my normal game and try to lead by example.
“With me it’s action not words, although I like to think I do a bit of both on the pitch. I like to moan a bit. But I think that’s good. It shows that I care and I’ll be caring tomorrow night.”