Gordon Strachan has admitted he is wrestling with the dilemma of whether to pick new fans’ favourite Ikechi Anya or the in-form Chris Burke as Scotland round off their Group A qualifying campaign against Croatia at Hampden Park tonight.
The Scotland manager surprised many with his admission that Anya is not a definite starter, although the Watford player reported for duty last week while carrying a slight thigh strain.
Such was the impact made by the winger in his first start against Macedonia last month that he seemed certain to line up at Hampden tonight. His international breakthrough has been identified as one of the bright spots of a disappointing campaign. However, Strachan says he has been presented with a problem because of recent performances by Burke, who he referred to as the in-form Scottish player in British football at present. Although Croatia have already qualified for a World Cup qualifying play-off place, the Scotland manager is reluctant to include two wingers in the team. It is set to come down to a straight decision between either Anya or Burke. The former is more comfortable on the left and it was from this position that he scored Scotland’s first goal in the 2-1 win over Macedonia last month. Burke, meanwhile, plays on the right flank and started Strachan’s first match in charge against Estonia. He has since appeared only as a late substitute in two qualifying ties.
Scout Garry Pendrey watched the game last month when on- loan Manchester United striker Jesse Lingard scored four times for Birmingham on his debut against Coventry City.
Despite this feat, Pendrey told Strachan that Burke had been the outstanding player on the pitch.
The Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp also informed Strachan that Burke had been man of the match in their recent clash with Birmingham at Loftus Road.
Scotland are looking to avoid completing a continental qualifying campaign without a home win for the first time in the country’s international history.
While the Croatia manager Igor Stimac has admitted he is treating the game “like a training session”, Strachan is erring on the side of caution and will continue operating with a lone striker, likely to be the Everton player Steven
Naismith. “It’s a bit difficult to play with two out-and-out wingers,” said Strachan. “It’s hard to do that now. One needs to be able to come in the park and make sure you are not outnumbered. It’s not like we can play three up front,” he added.
Although Anya scored on his full debut for Scotland against Macedonia he had struck only two goals this season with Watford, for whom he tends to play in a deeper role.
“Burkie and Anya don’t give you too many goals, that’s the thing,” said Strachan.
“I will have a wee dilemma over one of them. But Garry Pendrey was at the Birmingham game where the boy scored four goals on his debut and said: ‘Forget it, the man of the match was Burke’.
“Harry Redknapp told me he was the best man on the pitch at QPR. Everywhere he has gone recently he has been terrific.”
Reminded of the way the Tartan Army have taken Anya to their hearts since he made his debut as a second-half substitute against Belgium last month, Strachan said he had to ignore such “hype” and concentrate on selecting a side best equipped to deal with the opponents in front of them.
“I pick the team because I think it is right for that night and against the team they are playing,” he said.
With Scotland unable to qualify for the World Cup, Strachan was asked about his thoughts on England’s chances of securing qualification with a win against Poland this evening at Wembley, in what is a re-match of the famous 1973 clash in which Sir Alf Ramsey’s side failed to earn the victory required after an inspired display of goalkeeping from Jan Tomaszewski in a 1-1 draw.
The Scotland manager was brief and to the point. “You are confusing me with someone who cares,” he said.