CROATIA coach Igor Stimac last night insisted Gordon Strachan is the man to lead Scotland out of the international wilderness to a major finals.
The former Coventry, Southampton and Celtic manager took over as Scotland manager in January after the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign was all but over.
Defeats by Wales and Serbia confirmed that the Scots would still be looking back at the 1998 World Cup in France for their last appearance at the finals of a big tournament.
However, there is an optimism around the Scotland camp following the 2-1 win over Macedonia in Skopje in their last game and the 1-0 victory over Croatia in June, which has withstood defeats by England and Belgium in between.
Ahead of the final Group A game between Croatia and Scotland at Hampden Park tonight, former Derby and West Ham defender Stimac was asked if Strachan was the manager who could end the Scots’ poor recent qualifying record.
“Definitely,” he said. “You can expect good things with Gordon as the manager. He is a key man for your success.
“You can already see that he is constructing the team for the next qualifiers. Before him, you didn’t look well to be honest. I wasn’t happy that the last manager was going and Gordon came in. I knew that changes would be made and your team would perform in a different way and he is putting things in the right place.
“I am quite sure that Scotland will be tough opponents in the next qualifiers. Gordon is a great guy, a great character. I know him from his Coventry days, the 1995-96 season. He always had his big smile at grounds where I went to watch European Championships and World Cup games and it was always nice to speak to him. Looking at the Scottish team now, I would say that you are on the right track.”
Croatia have guaranteed themselves second place behind group winners Belgium and, barring a bizarre series of results, will be in the play-offs. With nine players on yellow cards, including Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Mario Mandzukic and Niko Kranjcar, Stimac has to make a decision on whether to risk any of them being suspended for the first leg of the play-offs.
The Croatia boss would not be drawn on his team selection, saying: “I will not discuss my first 11,” but he did explain what he had meant earlier in the day when he said on arrival in Glasgow that he was treating the game as “a training session.”
He said: “I meant that we have a chance to try a few things here because there is two play-off games for us after the game against Scotland. I would never underestimate anybody, especially not Scotland, the team who beat us in Zagreb.
“We are here to play to the best of our abilities with the best 11 players we have at the moment and we will try to win the game. We need to gain some confidence back.”
Stimac admitted that losing 1-0 to Strachan’s side in the summer was the turning point in the campaign for his team, who had won five of their opening six games previously while drawing the other away to Belgium. “As far as we are concerned, yes,” he said. “It was a very bad defeat for us. Unexpected I would say. Again, not meaning to disrespect Scotland but we were clear favourites in that game. We did enough to win to be honest. We conceded a stupid goal and we didn’t take our chances, that happens sometimes in football. We were sad after that because that was the turning point.”
Crotia captain Darijo Srna, meanwhile, admits they deserve the criticism they have received in their own country after failing to win the group.
Shakhtar Donetsk star Srna missed their defeat by Belgium through suspension, but he has no complaints about the stick the national team are getting. He said: “We are getting criticised from all sides right now – the President, the Prime Minister, everyone. We are a young country who have had some great results in the past and we live for success.
“We were placed in the toughest group in Europe and we have had a few bad results in this group. So all the criticism we have received in the media is justified,” Srna added.