GORDON Strachan clenched his fists in a gesture of triumph after the 1-0 over Georgia and then turned to shake each member of his staff’s hand. This was a job well done.
He later reflected gushingly on the performance. “Magnificent”, was one of the first words he uttered in the post-match press conference. “That was the best hour or 65 minutes we have had as a football team since I have been here,” he added.
It sounded as if nothing could shake his reverie. But Strachan now knows the landscape of Group D has changed somewhat thanks to Poland’s victory over Germany later the same evening. However good Scotland had been against Georgia it was Poland who proved to be the headline makers following their 2-0 victory over world champions. Theirs was the glory.
Of course Strachan cannot do much about that. Scotland did what they had to do by collecting the three points that were rendered even more crucial by Poland’s later success. Rightly so following a run of only one defeat in eight games, Scotland depart for Poland this morning in upbeat mood.
A win on their visit just seven months ago – albeit a friendly – grants further reason for confidence. The prevailing sentiment is that Scotland will now need to return with a result following Poland’s historic maiden victory over their neighbours. A win for the Poles tomorrow could mean having to accept that Scotland are vying with the Republic of Ireland for third place – and a play-off spot.
Asked in what ways he will change things ahead of tomorrow, Strachan said: “I can’t change things too much.” He also played-down the suggestion that Poland are all about one man: Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski. At a press conference last week, Strachan reported that Mark McGhee was asked “about 15 questions” on Lewandowski.
“Then someone said: Are you thinking too much about Lewandowski? Mark replied: ‘You’ve just asked me 15 questions about him!’” As if to prove Strachan’s point about why Scotland cannot afford to get hung up on only Lewandowski, the striker was not on the scoresheet against Germany. In any case, Strachan has his own personnel issues to focus on. We can take from his comment on Friday about having the team in his head at the start of last week that he decided well in advance to drop Darren Fletcher. “I knew how we wanted to play it was just picking the right people for this game,” was all he would say on the matter on Saturday night at Ibrox.
He was reluctant to go into further detail. It can’t be easy dropping your captain, someone about whom, when asked whether it was a gamble to bring him back for last month’s clash against Germany, Strachan said: “Listen, he’s a good player, I fit around them.”
Not on Saturday, however, and perhaps understandably so. Since that game in Germany when he was substituted after just under an hour, Fletcher has played only another 25 minutes of first-team football for Manchester United. Still, it felt strange to see Fletcher signing autographs and posing for selfies with fans at the side of the dug-out as Scotland prepared to re-start the game after half-time on Saturday. Perhaps the burning question ahead of tomorrow is whether he will return.
It would be slightly odd if someone presumably dropped for lack of match practice is brought back in for such a high-octane encounter. It is now only longer since he last played (which was as a second-half substitute for Manchester United against West Ham United on 27 September).
James McArthur’s appearance as substitute on Saturday as Scotland sought to protect what they had might hint at a possible personnel change in tomorrow’s starting XI.
On the subject of captain, those who played on Saturday mostly shared the same opinion. In a side full of skippers, everyone has learned to take responsibility. Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and James Morrison all have experience of skippering their clubs, as does goalkeeper David Marshall. Darren Fletcher even played his part from the sidelines.
“He was urging us on,” reported Ikechi Anya. “I can speak for myself, he said: ‘just keep on doing what you are doing’. He is not dampening he mood. If anything, he is lifting the mood more. He was giving orders from the bench. He just wants the best for Scotland.”
In any case, Scott Brown, the player who actually wore the captain’s armband on Saturday and who is likely to continue in the role tomorrow, was an unrelenting, passionate presence. According to Strachan, he was even endeavouring to carry teammates on his shoulders in a display that could stand as a definition of “captain’s performance” in dictionaries. It meant Fletcher’s absence was not felt. Not on this occasion, at any rate.
“Ah but we did not expect anything else,” said Strachan, when asked about Brown. “Jesus. The team played well but sometimes it looked like he was picking up two and saying: ‘come on, let’s go with me’.”
Is he a far better player now than the one he left behind at Celtic? “Definitely,” said Strachan, who left Parkhead five years ago. “He was bombing on when he was younger. He is doing things now like picking the ball up off the back four.”
Scotland played with an assurance that was only lacking in the final third – or when the players had a clear sight on goal. There was a reluctance to shoot and on those occasions when they were minded to test the Georgian goalkeeper, the finishing proved wayward. Amusingly, Strachan put at least once incidence of this down to surprise at the quality of football leading to the opening.
“I could not see them playing THAT well,” said Strachan, whose praise, which seemed slightly overcooked in any case, would have sounded far more off key had Georgia scored with a good opportunity with ten minutes left.
“There was even a time when Naisy was right through with just the goalie to beat and I think he thought: ‘that’s such a good move, I shouldn’t be here!’
“I have seen these games before when you have played that well and yet it gets to 1-1,” he added. “So I am delighted. I think everyone on that pitch today can handle playing with the ball. And whatever you say about football, it’s still the most important thing – to be able to handle the ball.”
Tomorrow night in Warsaw is one of those occasions when this ability becomes paramount.