LEIGH Griffiths will round off a remarkable season of personal achievement by leading the line for Scotland against Croatia this evening.
Perhaps surprisingly, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan has chosen to opt for the Wolves player, who spent last season on loan at Hibernian, to play in a lone striker position in the World Cup qualifying Group A fixture in Zagreb.
Griffiths scored 28 goals for Hibs this season and was named the Scottish football writers’ player of the year, as well as the PFA Scotland young player of the year.
The 22-year-old former Livingston and Dundee player is now set to take a significant step in his career at the Maksimir stadium. Judging from Strachan’s comments yesterday, his team selection is based on stopping the Croats, rather than building for the future. Given Scotland’s poor run of recent results, Strachan is aware that the priority is to try to lift morale.
“We’ve had six or seven training sessions looking at two different shapes,” said Strachan. “I think one shape is better for the future and the other might be one we pick for this game. If it doesn’t go as well as we hope, we can always fall back on the other.”
With Scotland expected to be pinned back for long spells, the visitors’ hopes are likely to rest on how their defence performs. Griffiths’ harrying style could be a key to relieving some of the pressure. Despite seven calls off from the original squad, Strachan believes he can “trust” those players on the pitch this evening.
He is hoping his team can arrest a run of four consecutive competitive defeats, which is the first time the international side has put together such a dismal sequence of results.
Strachan presided over only two of those but his six-month reign is in desperate need of a boost. He said: “The thing when you look at previous games is that we’ve made honest mistakes. There have been individual errors. If we could keep them down to a minimum in this game that would be fine.”
Strachan called on his players to be “brave” in an environment where Croatia have only been beaten once before in a competitive fixture – against England in 2008.
While Griffiths was a revelation for Hibs this season, Strachan is aware that playing against a team ranked No 4 in the world in their own stadium presents a completely different challenge for a player who is set to return later this summer to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have been relegated to League One.
The onus will be on Scotland to take whatever chances present themselves and Griffiths’ ability from dead-ball situations outside the box will have been noted by Strachan, who is conscious of Croatia’s plan to force Scotland to defend deep in their own half.
“Leigh has played well, whether it’s with people playing off him or the lone role,” said Strachan yesterday.
It later emerged that Griffiths had made the starting XI for the Maksimir stadium clash, where the new-look Scotland side will be led out by James Morrison, the West Bromwich Albion midfielder.
He is the first English-born player to skipper Scotland since Bruce Rioch at the 1978 World Cup finals. Asked why he had chosen Morrison, Strachan replied that he was a “good pro”. He added: “He is quite clever and he asks questions. James asks about tactics. Some players will keep it to themselves and ask their team-mates later on.
“James will ask you on the training pitch and during the game.”
From a Scotland point of view, the spotlight will fall on Griffiths, however. His journey from unwanted Wolves player to Scotland striker has been startling, and beset with numerous setbacks. During his first season on loan with Hibs he was suspended for gesturing to supporters, while he was also at the centre of an incident on Twitter where he racially abused a poster, to whom he later apologised.
On the pitch, however, he has proved his worth. He helped take Hibs to a Scottish Cup final, though, hampered by injury, the striker proved ineffective as the Easter Road side fell 3-0 to Celtic. Strachan was asked about the contrast between Griffiths and fellow striker Jordan Rhodes, who looks set to be named among the substitutes. While Griffiths has not had his troubles to seek off the field, the teetotal Rhodes has conducted himself in exemplary fashion. Griffiths is a throwback to Scottish players of old, who had a little devilment about them, but Strachan praised his behaviour.
“Leigh Griffiths has been so easy to manage it’s incredible,” he said. “He keeps himself to himself but, when you speak to him, he’s always attentive, which is good. I’ve enjoyed his company. All the lads are different in their own way. But it’s when you get onto the football field, that’s when your true character comes out.
“Whatever you do off the field doesn’t matter. It’s only when you get on the football field that your true character clicks in.”