GORDON STRACHAN is a man well aware of his squad’s limitations but he is not someone who simply accepts them.
In his world, honest endeavour won’t cure every deficiency but it will help mask some of them and in a bid to address the paucity of recent wins at Hampden, the Scotland manager says his squad have been working hard in training.
On Tuesday night they face Croatia in the final match of a World Cup qualifying campaign which has yet to produce a home win. The last victory at Hampden came more than two years ago, against Lithuania in September 2011, but having found a system that helped them to triumphs on their travels, the national coach is now determined to find a way of winning at home.
“I don’t detect any fear in the players at playing at Hampden,” said Strachan. “It is just a case of us using the ball better and using our energy to create space for players and things like that. That is what we have been working on all week. It has not been easy for the players and what we will do now is have a rest because that has been five sessions in three days.
“There are systems away from home we think we can rely on. I wouldn’t say we’ve cracked it because you never know what’s around the corner, but there are things we’re comfortable with.
“At home, I want to see more energy off the ball, to give the player in possession more options. That involves a lot of work and that’s why they’re getting Sunday off. They’ve worked hard enough in the past three days. I took a double session and I felt tired. It’s tiring for the lot of us but I feel better when I go to bed and think ‘Well, we’ve done something’ rather than just play five-a-sides and flick a ball about. We’ve done something that will hopefully help during a game.”
Strachan believes nothing does more for squad morale than a run of good results and says his players have been buoyed by recent wins away from home, against Macedonia and Croatia.
“They are a good bunch of lads to work with, they are lively and their enthusiasm in training has been good so it should be there when you come to a game, because that is the best part of it. We have been working to create more space when we are further up the pitch, to use our athletic ability because we are not Spain, we can’t just pass our way through things, and we are not Belgium, where we can hit the ball up to [Romelu] Lukaku and the ball gets held up there, and there is no Mario Mandzukic up there, so we need to use a lot of energy before we can get in a shot at goal.
“I have not adapted the training too much because I still think there are ways for us to make it difficult for teams when we have the ball. We have to use what we have got – plenty of enthusiasm, plenty of willingness to work when we have not got it. We need to use that to create more space for us when we have the ball. To do things away from home, there are one or two systems that we should be OK with now, but we need to find things at home to do.”
Minus Shaun Maloney and Jordan Rhodes and with the continuing absence of Steven Fletcher, Strachan has had to reassess his options up front but there are options, with Steven Naismith leading the line so well in Macedonia, while Ikechi Anya and Chris Burke can deliver from flanks.
But if he has to rethink things, the Croatians are now guaranteed second place in Group A and a likely play-off place and, with a number of their first-choice starters just one booking away from having to sit that out, Strachan is hoping they will re-shuffle personnel as well.
“Maybe the temptation for the coach is to make sure they don’t get booked and that means they might not play. But they have still got Eduardo [da Silva], [Ivica] Olic and [Nikica] Jelavic who can play. So that isn’t bad,” he said. “I don’t know if many football coaches talk about revenge. They talk about trying to put things right,” he added, addressing any likely desire for payback after Scotland’s June win in Zagreb surprised the Croats.
“If I got beat somewhere then the next time I was back there I wanted to go back and show I’m better than that. It was never revenge. But Croatia will be up for it. You just need to look at the teams their players play for – you don’t get there without having motivation.”
With Scotland’s World Cup campaign a failure, the quest is to build on the recent upturn in fortunes. A year away from the first Euro 2016 qualifiers, Strachan is adamant that the nation can look towards them with a greater sense of belief. “I think we can do that if we have a full squad of players to pick from most of the time. I think we are a bit like a Scottish Premiership team. Most teams have four or five really good players, and if you lose two or three of them invariably most of the teams will be near the bottom of the league. But if you keep them fit they will be near the top of the league, and we are the same.
“You look at England and Croatia and Germany. We’re not there. If we keep four or five fit all the time then we’ll be near the top of the league, in second or third place.
“If we lose three good players then I think it will be harder to achieve what you want to achieve.”
With Darren Fletcher one of the nation’s best and with no definite idea on when he might be able to return, Strachan has very little margin for error when it comes to other leading lights missing out through injury or suspension. The former is something he has no control, the latter is something he has been trying to minimise.
“It would be handy to have no suspensions in the next campaign. Before we beat Croatia we had Craig Thomson the referee in to talk about how you should behave in international football. It was a great talk and I thought our discipline that night was first class. We didn’t lose our temper and we didn’t lose a player. If you lose a player it can be big.”