G ORDON Strachan did not approve of ITV4’s Champions League coverage last week.
Sitting in the studio alongside Chris Sutton – a fellow pundit for Celtic’s play-off round first leg in Kazakhstan – he made it clear to those around him what he thought of the commentary.
“I was watching the game and I was listening to Jon Champion who is a good friend of mine, but I thought, ‘this is wrong’. I didn’t think they [Celtic] were as bad as he was making them out to be and I was screaming at the producer to tell him. I was shouting ‘this is not right’. They were doing more than enough to win a game of football.”
Maybe they were, but they didn’t, and in Wednesday night’s second leg, Strachan will be among those fervently hoping that the Scottish champions can overturn a 2-0 deficit. Not only does he care about the club he managed for four years, he is looking out for the national side, most of whom have little or no experience of European football.
Of the Scotland squad announced on Friday for the forthcoming World Cup qualifying matches against Belgium and Macedonia, only four will experience continental competition this season, Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown and James Forrest, all of Celtic, together with Shaun Maloney, who will play in the Europa League group stage with Wigan Athletic.
Celtic will find themselves in the same competition as Maloney if they are knocked out of the Champions League this week. The Europa League is better than nothing, but it is not the kind of sophisticated, high-stakes football provided by Europe’s premier club tournament. It is not what Strachan needs if his players are to meet the game’s biggest challenges.
He regrets that most of his squad play abroad only when they turn up for international duty. “They are not getting it and it is a worrying thing. Five or six years ago, we were watching Rangers get to a [UEFA Cup] final and play all those games and everyone was involved in it. Celtic were the same, getting into the last 16 and getting the likes of Barcelona, Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk and AC Milan.”
Belgium, on the other hand, have no such worries. They have players from Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Chelsea. They also have players from Aston Villa and Everton, but you wouldn’t want to compare them with the Scotland internationals who hold their own at the Norwich Citys and West Bromwich Albions of this world. Marouane Fellaini, of Everton, is wanted by Manchester United, while Christian Benteke has been nothing short of sensational for Paul Lambert’s Villa. The big striker, who scored two at the Emirates last week, followed by one at Stamford Bridge, is threatening to take the Premier League by storm with his combination of power and finesse.
“I’ve got to say he’s one of the best strikers in the world at the moment,” says Strachan. “He is a massive man, but he can play any sort of football you want. You can play it up to him, he’ll bring it down, he can flick it on, he’ll take it in, he’ll beat people…”
Strachan does not expect to have players of that quality at his disposal, but it would help if he was not almost entirely dependent on slightly-built midfielders. Short of strength in key areas, he admits that Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, “the men in possession” at the centre of Scotland’s defence, will have their hands full with Benteke.
“He’s big,” says Strachan. “We’re talking a lot of steroids to match him between now and then. It’s a challenge for our pair, who maybe don’t have the experience, but at the moment they’re doing well. In free play, England scored against us when Grant Hanley was off. If he was on the park, they wouldn’t have scored. I guarantee that.”
Scotland’s performance in their 3-2 defeat at Wembley, which followed a 1-0 win in Croatia, has transformed the mood. Allan McGregor, their first-choice goalkeeper, is suspended for the visit of Belgium, while Kenny Miller has retired from international football, but there is little of the pessimism that preceded their trip to Brussels a year ago. A 2-0 defeat that night confirmed the arrival of Belgium as a major force, while effectively paving the way for Craig Levein’s departure.
Strachan, Levein’s successor, believes that Belgium, ranked tenth in the world, have the players to reach at least the quarter-finals of next summer’s World Cup finals, but Scotland have proved in their last two matches that they are not intimidated by reputation.
“They [Belgium] are absolutely terrific, up there in the top ten in the world,” says Strachan. “Most of them are playing Champions League and are at top clubs. But we faced the same sort of thing with Croatia... and we managed to get something out of that.”