STEVEN Fletcher is set to return to the Scotland starting line-up tonight with manager Gordon Strachan confident that he will contribute further to the national team’s recent resurgence in form.
The £12 million Sunderland striker has not played for the national team since March, when he suffered an ankle injury just four minutes into the World Cup qualifier against Wales at Hampden. Fletcher has already spent a subsequent spell on the sidelines this season with a shoulder injury but is now back in action for his club.
In Fletcher’s absence, Everton forward Steven Naismith had emerged as a positive option and admirable performer for Scotland in the central striker’s role deployed by Strachan in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, which has delivered encouraging performances in the team’s last five matches.
But Strachan indicated he will have no hesitation in handing Fletcher an instant recall for tonight’s challenge fixture against the United States at Hampden.
“Yeah, I’ll be tempted to go with him [Fletcher],” said Strachan. “I think you do when you see good players, class players like him, in training.
“Wherever Steven has been, he has made the team he plays for a better side. He made Hibs a better side and has done the same at Burnley, Wolves and now Sunderland. He had a terrific season last season for Sunderland, until he got injured playing for us. He has that quality to make a squad and a team better.”
He made his Scotland debut almost six years ago but Fletcher’s international career has never picked up any momentum, for a variety of reasons.
The main factor, of course, was his two-year exile during Craig Levein’s tenure, when he fell out with the manager in the wake of the derided 4-6-0 formation deployed in October 2010 against Czech Republic in Prague. But the 26-year-old has also seen his Scotland ambitions hampered by injury, so far completing only one full 90 minutes in the accumulation of 12 caps and scoring just a single goal. Strachan is hoping for a sustained spell with Fletcher at his disposal as Scotland build towards the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
“I haven’t had much of a chance to work with him so far and it’s great working with good players,” said Strachan. “I am fortunate that, most of the time, I have worked with right good players. It is fantastic as a coach to see really good players working. Steven has added to that. You watch him in training and see the way he comes to the ball, then glides with the ball when he gets it. He is comfortable and is at one with the ball when it comes to him. It’s great.”
Naismith, who scored in last month’s 2-0 win over Croatia at Hampden, as Scotland ended a poor World Cup qualifying campaign on a positive note, will be entitled to consider himself unfortunate if he drops out of the starting line-up.
But Strachan is appreciative of Naismith’s ability to either carry out the central striker role or fill one of the three attacking midfield positions behind the front man, if required.
“I know Steven Fletcher can do the job up front, there’s no question about that,” added Strachan. “But so can Steven Naismith. We’re fine with that. We have competition up there now but I want even more.
“We do play with a system now with one up there, one round about him, and two wider players if we can. So if it’s not two strikers, it’s two guys who know how to play striker but can play midfield if required. That’s what we’re after.
“Steven Fletcher and Steven Naismith are two good point men but can play in other positions as well. I would like to find another one, that would be brilliant, and other people will be given their opportunity.”
Strachan lost another player yesterday, QPR forward Matt Phillips returning home after suffering a hamstring strain in training. The twice-capped Phillips is the fourth withdrawal from the squad, following the departures of Blackburn Rovers striker Jordan Rhodes, Celtic winger James Forrest and Birmingham City winger Chris Burke.
No replacement was called up for Phillips, with Brighton winger Craig Conway, Dundee United forward Gary Mackay-Steven and Leeds United striker Ross McCormack having been drafted in earlier.
Strachan will assess some fringe players at various stages of both tonight’s game and Tuesday’s fixture against Norway in Molde, but insists: “I do not think it is right to make wholesale changes. Maybe two or three things might be different.”