Stephen Halliday: Honeymoon over for Strachan

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Picture: SNS
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. Picture: SNS
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WITH another 24 Euro 2016 qualifying points still to play for after Saturday’s meeting with Georgia at Ibrox, Gordon Strachan is clearly within the boundaries of both reason and logic when he insists it is not a “must-win” game for Scotland.

But whether he likes or not, it is equally fair to point out that, for the first time since he took charge of the national team almost two years ago, Strachan is facing a competitive fixture from which failure to deliver all three points will leave him open to negative scrutiny.

So far, he has hardly put a foot wrong in the job since succeeding Craig Levein. The 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign was already dead in the water when Strachan inherited a beleaguered and directionless squad.

The back-to-back defeats at home to Wales and away to Serbia in March 2013 were miserable and eye-opening experiences for Strachan, but he was rightly spared any criticism for them so early in his tenure as he got to grips with the task facing him.

Since then, progress has been steady and sure. The 1-0 win over Croatia in Zagreb in June last year was as encouraging as it was unexpected. Even a 2-0 home defeat by an outstanding Belgian side last September did not provide any reason to doubt Strachan was having a positive impact on the Scotland players.

The subsequent victories over Macedonia in Skopje and Croatia at Hampden which finished the World Cup qualifying series on a high note simply enhanced the growing sense that Strachan was the right man for the job.

In many ways, it has been one of the longest honeymoon periods afforded to any Scotland manager, such was the low ebb at which he came into the job. It probably even extended into the opening Euro 2016 Group D fixture last month when no-one could reasonably expect anything more than the gritty but ultimately fruitless display by Scotland in losing 2-1 to world champions Germany in Dortmund.

But now the honeymoon is very much over and Strachan finds himself in the position of having to manage expectations as well as his team. 
Failure to take all three points at home to Georgia, the fifth seeds in a six-team group, will place Scotland under considerable early pressure in their bid to reach the finals in France.

Republic of Ireland and Poland, with whom Scotland would expect to be engaged in battle for second and third place in the group behind odds-on favourites Germany, both made winning starts to their campaigns while Strachan’s men were losing in Dortmund.

If Scotland find themselves heading to face the Poles in Warsaw three days after anything less than victory over Georgia at Ibrox, the heat will be well and truly on for the manager.

There are plenty of reasons, however, to believe that scenario can be avoided. Strachan has instilled a sense of confidence and optimism among his squad which should be able to cope with the increased burden of expectation they face on Saturday.

Having succeeded in his first objective of making Scotland difficult to beat again, Strachan has turned his attention in recent months to the development of more progressive and threatening attacking play within the settled 4-2-3-1 system he has deployed to generally positive effect.

To that end, the return to scoring form at the weekend of Steven Fletcher could hardly have been more timely for Strachan. Plagued by injury and an apparent loss of confidence for some time, Fletcher looked back to his best as he netted twice and set up the other goal in Sunderland’s 3-1 victory over Stoke City in the Premier League.

Remarkably, those were the 27-year-old’s first goals of 2014. For too long, his notional status as Scotland’s
leading striker has not been backed up by the statistics, which show he has scored just once in his 15 appearances for his country so far.

But, as he showed with his outstanding touch and awareness to set up Ikechi Anya’s goal against Germany last month, Fletcher possesses top level technical attributes which few others available to Strachan have in their armoury.

During Fletcher’s struggles for fitness, form and consistency, Steven Naismith, who scored for Everton against Manchester United at Old Trafford yesterday, has become Strachan’s first choice front man and has rarely disappointed. It will be intriguing to see if Strachan decides to accommodate both of them against Georgia.

In midfield, Strachan is also significantly boosted by the return from injury of Scott Brown. The Celtic captain brings greater levels of dynamism and tempo to Scotland’s system. With Charlie Mulgrew suspended and 
Darren Fletcher perhaps still some distance short of operating at full capacity, Brown’s presence is crucial in one of the holding midfield positions.

One other area of debate over Strachan’s team selection against Georgia has been sparked by the impressive return to fitness and form of goalkeeper Craig Gordon at Celtic. With Hull’s Allan McGregor dropping out through injury, many observers have suggested the time is right for Gordon to reclaim the No 1 status with Scotland which, at one stage in his career, was undisputed.

But that would be harsh on the man in possession, David Marshall, who has arguably been the most consistently impressive goalkeeper in British football over the past 18 months.

It is just another big call for Strachan to make. For the first time as Scotland manager, every one of those decisions he makes will now be analysed to the nth degree if his team fails to win.