Mark McGhee has stressed that Scotland must seek to “strike the balance” between defence and attack as they prepare to face what he expects will be an explosive start by Croatia in Zagreb tomorrow.
Worryingly, words like “onslaught” spilled from the Scotland assistant manager’s mouth yesterday, as he contemplated what he and many others expect will be a challenging evening in the Maksimir stadium.
The Scotland assistant manager has studied Croatia’s recent performances on a computer programme called Wyscout as he travels by train from his home in Brighton to various scouting excursions across England. It has made for some uncomfortable viewing. In their last home competitive fixture against Serbia in March, the hosts had secured the points by half-time, after scoring two first-half goals in a 2-0 victory.
It seems very clear to McGhee that Igor Stimac’s side relies on catching their opponents cold, in much the same way as Wales did against Scotland at Hampden in March, in the new Scotland management team’s first competitive fixture in charge.
Somehow Scotland managed to take the lead that night, before losing to two second-half goals. Both McGhee and manager Gordon Strachan have stressed the need to their players to be on alert from the opening kick tomorrow, with Croatia keen to keep the momentum going after winning their last four competitive matches. Scotland, meanwhile, have lost their last four competitive outings. Croatia currently trail group leaders Belgium on goal difference, with the Belgians in action tomorrow evening as well, against Serbia.
“Croatia have done it in every single game they have played,” said McGhee. “They have come out of the blocks and really raced after the opposition and put them under pressure, forced them to play early and play from the back and closing down the keeper.”
Scotland’s prospects have not been helped by a further call-off, one that leaves a crucial area of the team further depleted. Centre-half Gordon Greer is the seventh player to withdraw from the original squad. Indeed, his selection received widespread coverage because it seemed to underline just where Scotland are at the moment. Aged 32 and having been awarded only one B cap previously, Greer was called up after a solid season with Brighton & Hove Albion.
Sadly, his dream of winning a first cap has been extinguished for now, after a decision was made to allow him to return to Brighton. Already hampered by tonsillitis, the defender has aggravated a knee problem that an operation carried out a few weeks ago has not managed to rectify.
“It turns out that he had a minor intervention some weeks ago,” reported McGhee. Asked to explain “intervention”, he added: “The surgeon said that it would be absolutely fine by now but when he trained with us the other day there was a reaction and we decided to err on the side of caution and send him back. It was something he had done on his knee and it swelled up.”
The development has left Scotland with only three centre-backs, although judging from what McGhee said yesterday, Hearts player Andy Webster looks like being the odd one out, in favour of an English-based pairing of Blackburn Rovers’ Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, of Norwich City.
“We’ve got Grant, obviously, and we’ve got Russell..And we’ve got Grant.. I’m not prepared to tell you which two will play,” McGhee smiled, when asked where Greer’s withdrawal left Scotland. Although both Martin and Hanley are dependable figures for their clubs, they are relatively untried at international level – Martin, if he plays, will be making his competitive debut against a strike force that is likely to include Mario Mandzukic, Bayern Munich’s Champions League-winning forward.
“We have spoken more about how we contain the onslaught that we expect from them early on,” said McGhee, with reference to Scotland’s gameplan. “That requires us to hit the other way. It requires us to punch back. We realise that. We can’t just keep taking punches because eventually against opposition like this you’ll take a knockout punch.”
Scotland’s approach won’t hinge solely on containment, he promised. “We’ve worked on two things,” he said. “We’ve worked on having a discipline about us and a shape about us that will make life difficult for them but will still give us an opportunity, particularly with the players we have, to go in the other direction.
“So it’s about striking that balance between the two and we’ve worked hard to achieve that this week. We feel content that – on paper and on the training ground – we have an opportunity to do that and now we’ve got to go there and do the job.”
There have been reports of trash-talking from Croatia. Even Stimac, the country’s respected manager, has – it is claimed - promised that Scotland won’t get over the half-way line in Zagreb tomorrow evening. McGhee simply shrugged when asked about this yesterday, and made the probably reasonable point that his comments could have been cranked up by an
excitable media, in both countries. “I think they [Croatia] have back-pedalled a bit,” said McGhee. “I have read things where they have been saying they have never beaten Scotland and they will show us respect. You know what you guys are like. Someone says something like they want to pressurise us high up the park, it can be lost in translation and that means they are going to batter us.
“We are not going to take offence,” he added. “We know they are a good side and will come at us full pelt. We have to be prepared for that. But I think they are entitled to think they can beat Scotland. We have not won a game in this section yet and they are home.
“Given their record, they are quite entitled to believe they can beat us. We have to prove them wrong.”
Croatia also have players missing for tomorrow night’s game, with playmaker Luka Modric and defender Vedran Corluka suspended. But their coach, Igor Stimac, acknowledged he had plenty of players to choose from to replace the pair.
“Gordon Schildenfeld has had a great season with PAOK Salonika and will definitely start at the back, while a plethora of players, led by Milan Badelj and Mateo Kovacic, can stand in for Modric,” Stimac explained.