FORMER Scotland striker Alan McInally believes that Steven Naismith has earned the right to be regarded as the national team’s first-choice striker – ahead of £12 million man Steven Fletcher – for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which kicks off this weekend.
Gordon Strachan named just three strikers in his squad for the Group D opener against Germany in Dortmund on Sunday night, with Naismith and Fletcher joined by Derby County’s Chris Martin. If the Scotland manager sticks with the 4-2-3-1 formation which has become his favoured strategy during his encouraging tenure so far, it leaves that trio battling for the lone front man role against the world champions.
Fletcher had been regarded by many as a panacea for Scotland’s troubles when he was absent from the international scene for 18 months as a consequence of a fall-out with Strachan’s predecessor Craig Levein.
But, since his return to the squad, the Sunderland player has failed to add to his solitary goal in 14 Scotland appearances so far. Fletcher has also struggled for form at club level and has not scored a senior goal since December last year.
In contrast, Everton striker Naismith, pictured, has delivered a series of eye-catching displays for both club and country over the past 12 months. He has enjoyed an exceptional start to this season for the Goodison Park club, scoring three times in as many appearances, and McInally feels that he is now Scotland’s leading front man.
“I think Naismith is now ahead of Fletcher in the pecking order,” said McInally. “If you had asked me that six months ago, I wouldn’t have said it. But Fletcher has had a few injuries and struggled a bit at Sunderland, while Naismith has been playing really well for Everton.
“He has started this season in great form, scoring goals. It depends on how Gordon decides to play against Germany. I think he’s said he won’t tinker too much with his formation. But against Nigeria in the last game in May, it was closer to a 4-4-2. But I think he might go with Naismith on his own up front, with someone else just off him.”
Sky Sports pundit McInally, who represented Scotland at the 1990 World Cup finals while a Bayern Munich player, believes Strachan’s re-energised squad are facing Germany at the optimum time of the campaign.
Joachim Löw, the Germany coach, has already expressed concern about what will be his team’s first competitive match since they lifted the World Cup in Brazil two months ago, claiming they have gone from “hunter to potential prey” against the Scots.
“I think Löw is aware of the job Gordon has done with Scotland,” added McInally.
“Three years ago, I don’t think anyone would have given us a hope in hell to win a corner in the match, never mind anything else.
“What Gordon and Mark McGhee have done is make Scotland more like what we expect of them – better organisation and better confidence within the squad. I think Joachim Löw is aware of that.
“He will also be aware that we went to France and beat them 1-0 not so long ago. I also think he is trying to ensure his team are not complacent after winning the World Cup.
“I do believe it is the best time for Scotland to play this fixture. A few of the German players have retired from international football after the World Cup, including Miroslav Klose, which is a bonus.
“They also have a few injury problems, although obviously they will still put out a really strong team.
“They’ve got Marco Reus back, who is a magician, and with guys like Toni Kroos and Andrea Schurrle, they have always got a midfield which can really hurt you.
“But there will probably be a bit of back-slapping and high-fiving going on among them this week in their first get-together since Brazil.
“That carries its own pressure for them and I’m quite happy that Scotland are getting them first in this group.
“You don’t want to be going there near the end of the campaign, needing a result. Germany don’t really have any weaknesses. They are incredibly talented in every department.
“We can only hope that, as world champions, they go into it thinking they only need to give 75 per cent against Scotland.
“If we can get something there on Sunday, it will put down a marker in the group and put a wee bit of extra pressure on Poland, Ireland and the other teams Scotland will be battling with for qualification.
“There is a lot of optimism around the team at the moment and I don’t think it is misplaced.
“We’ve got a decent squad, especially in the midfield area. Darren Fletcher is back playing for Manchester United, Graham Dorrans has started well at West Brom and Shaun Maloney always has a trick in him.
“The middle of the park in international matches is really important, especially if you don’t have a truly world class striker who can win games on his own.
“The one disappointment for me is that Robert Snodgrass is out injured,” added McInally. “He is a big, big miss for Scotland and I’d be far more confident if he was available.
“It can be an intimidating stadium in Dortmund but I don’t think it will worry our players.
“If we go there and get our bottoms spanked, then it will bring us back down to earth. But I genuinely don’t see that happening. I think a draw is absolutely possible. But don’t get too disappointed if we lose, because it’s only the first game and no-one really expects us to get anything away to the world champions.”
l Sky Sports is showing Uefa Euro 2016 qualifiers, Champions League, La Liga and Eredevisie on Sky Sports 5, its new home of European football.