Gordon Strachan should show faith in the Celtic striker for the home tie, but may wish to leave him on the bench for the Slovakia trip, writes Craig Fowler
IT’S TIME. Leigh Griffiths has waited long enough. He’s been in terrific form over the past 20 months and yet he’s been granted limited opportunities at international level. He’s had to sit behind the misfiring Steven Fletcher and the unpopular Chris Martin. Now, this Saturday against Lithuania, it’s the perfect chance for him to lay down his Scotland credentials in a manner Gordon Strachan can no longer ignore.
The Scotland boss doesn’t have anything personal against the striker. He just doesn’t trust him to lead the line for a team who, against at least half of their opponents, will have to sit back, thereby starving the lone frontman of the type of service he requires. Early in Strachan’s Scotland career he showed a great deal of trust in the attacker, giving him opportunities in World Cup qualifiers against Belgium and Croatia. Even though Scotland won the latter of those two contests, Griffiths didn’t have the best of games in either, and Strachan has gone off the idea since. As we’ve seen from the national team boss, he’s a man who likes to stick to his convictions.
Recently things have been changing. Griffiths was masterful in Celtic’s 5-2 win over Hapoel Beer-Sheva, a result that went a long way to securing their place in the Champions League. He also grabbed the important equaliser in the away tie at Astana, before tucking away a penalty in the return leg. Fears that he’s not a big-game player are dissipating due to these performances, and Strachan was in attendance, working for BT Sport, to see the Beer-Sheva display. Afterwards he was full of praise. Was his mind changing?
On Saturday, Lithuania are expected to make things difficult for Scotland. A nation that’s always produced good, technical players, they’ll believe they can hurt Scotland at the other end, but as underdogs they’ll need to keep it tight at the back. In such matches, Griffiths can thrive. He’s such a quick player: quick over five yards, quick to shoot, quick-feet. It makes him so difficult to mark, even when there are bodies everywhere. He doesn’t need lots of space to damage opponents. He just needs the opportunity to make a darting run, where he can fire off a first-time shot. With the dynamic skills of Robert Snodgrass, Matt Richie and, likely, Oliver Burke playing in support, Scotland will have a unit capable of tearing the Lithuanians apart with their movement around the final third.
Like every player, he has his limitations. The burst is tempered when he’s forced to cover 40 yards of turf by his lonesome in matches for Celtic and Scotland when he’s tasked with doing more of the donkey work. His skills at holding up the ball, dragging the team up the park with him, are inconsistent on the big stage.
Even if he manages to impress on Saturday, don’t be too surprised to see Fletcher re-installed for the Slovakia away game, where Strachan will look to use the pace of Burke and, if fit, Ikechi Anya running in behind. Fletcher is great at playing with his back to goal, threading through passes for the supporting midfielders, and that will likely be the manager’s gameplan. Although, if Griffiths does start on Saturday, and he bags a couple of goals, as he’s more than capable of doing, then it will be very difficult for Strachan to leave him out.