While reflecting on the 2-1 defeat a year ago that saw Scotland come so close yet so far from taking something from the newly-crowned world champions, Gordon Strachan mused that “sometimes you have to take a few hits before you achieve that historic moment”.
If that defeat against Germany represented a hit, it was an expected one. However, Friday night’s dismally poor 1-0 loss to Georgia could yet count as the knock-out blow unless Scotland come up with something special against Joachim Low’s side this evening. If Strachan is able to inspire victory then it would undeniably deserve to be dubbed “that historic moment”.
Scotland have beaten reigning world champions before, of course. But not since 1990, when Argentina were beaten 1-0 in a friendly. Yet more celebrated is the 3-2 win over England in 1967.
Even a point the manager believes can keep Scotland very much in the frame could make for a memorable evening at Hampden. “The players give me hope, the fact we are playing here gives me hope,” said Strachan yesterday, as he faced reporters at the national stadium.
The importance of having squad members able to step in and rise to the occasion could be underlined tonight. Strachan revealed he is preparing to make changes to the side defeated by Georgia in such a deflating manner.
Derby County’s Chris Martin, whose only start in five international appearances was brought to a halt at half-time against England ten months ago, could have a part to play as the manager seeks a physical threat in the box.
I have to pick a team in mind where I want a point – but I want three as wellGordon Strachan
“Martin gives you an option as well,” he said, when asked about the prospect of Leigh Griffiths stepping in for the misfiring Steven Fletcher. “He [Martin] has strength, he can stand in there and take the ball in. He can’t run about like other people but he has the strength to bring people into the game. I think his goalscoring record is as good as anybody’s over the last two years, in a more competitive league [than the Scottish Premiership] as well.”
Strachan is tasked with picking a side adequately buttressed to avoid defeat but also equipped to snatch an unlikely victory. “I’m not saying it’s the be all and end all, but I am looking for a point,” he said. “I want three. I have to pick a team in mind where I want a point – but I want three as well.
“I don’t think anybody knows how to play for a draw,” he added. “We are not saying it’s over and done with if we don’t get it. But I am more than confident we will get something. You never know when the big game in a campaign is. It might be tomorrow. It may be Georgia was the big game.”
That the defeat in Tbilisi is the one that eventually condemns Scotland remains the fear, with the three-hour delay to the squad’s journey home simply increasing the annoyance. “They are all right now,” said Strachan with reference to the players.
He stressed that any changes made will be done so with the identity of the opponents in mind rather than because players are heavy-legged or suffering from the events of Friday, when the team’s charter plane was late to arrive to pick them up. But this regrettable episode cannot be blamed for the poor performance that preceded it in the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena. The need for atonement is great and what better way to achieve it than with a result against the world champions? Scotland tend to prosper when the odds are stacked against them.
“You could say that about most teams,” said Strachan. “They play better sometimes and raise their game against higher opposition. In sport everywhere that happens – there is that extra kick.
“But I can’t ask them to run about any more than they did the other day there, that’s for sure. Could I have passed the ball better? Yeah, fine, but that’s an honest mistake. You can live with that as a football manager.”
A light training session on Saturday evening and a more comprehensive one yesterday has, according to Strachan, been helpful in ridding the players of their anger – both the ones who did play but did not play well in Georgia and those who were frustrated at being kept on the sidelines.
Included in the latter group is Darren Fletcher, the once totemic figure reduced to such a bit-part player of late. Indeed, he has not featured in any of Scotland’s last three competitive fixtures.
Strachan, when asked about the midfield department, spoke more readily about James McArthur, which could mean he will be the one to partner Scott Brown in midfield, with James Morrison freed to move further up-field, where he is more comfortable.
Strachan admitted he will “freshen up” the side. But this has less to do with the unhelpful travel complications than with the lessons learned from the defeat to England in November. He resisted the temptation to make changes on that occasion after being persuaded by the players that they were ready to go again after the 1-0 win over Republic of Ireland on the previous Friday.
That was a mistake he has acknowledged following the 3-1 loss, in a game played on a Tuesday night. This time around the players will have even less time to get over the knocks, bruises and bitter disappointment from Georgia.
The shorter recovery time is compounded by the travel logistics having gone wrong to the extent that the players did not arrive back at their Renfrewshire base until breakfast time on Saturday. But Strachan is not allowing this to deflect from the task in hand, and neither will he allow the players to use the inconvenience as an excuse.
Not that any have tried to complain, he revealed. As far as an international footballer is concerned, few tasks can concentrate the mind like an imminent appointment with the world champions. Strachan is one of Germany’s greatest fans. Asked why they are so good, he replied: “I would like to know.” Their strengths are hard to pin down, he added, because they keep evolving.
“They have evolved since the last time we played them, they’re doing things that are a wee bit different,” he said. “They have players who can play anywhere on the pitch with a physical presence. They can interchange and they are comfortable in different positions. And they have a good touch and the ability to pass the ball. So when you’re playing them you are up against it.”
Once again Scotland need to come back off the ropes. Once again they must overcome the fear of failure. The identity of their opponents means the challenge has rarely been greater.