Levein feels Scotland could win every World Cup qualifier
AS ALLY MacLeod discovered the last time the World Cup finals were held in South America, making bold proclamations about the capabilities of a Scotland team under your guidance can be a hazardous business.
As he sets out on the road he hopes will lead to Rio in 2014, current incumbent Craig Levein did not quite emulate MacLeod’s vainglorious and ultimately ill-starred prediction of triumph in Argentina back in 1978.
But the Scotland manager equally lacked nothing in terms of conviction when he claimed that the squad of players he has assembled are good enough to win every match they play in what most observers expect to be a breathlessly tight Group A qualifying group.
Levein’s bold assertion, ahead of today’s opening fixture against Serbia at Hampden, was another indication of his own perception of the progress he believes Scotland made during a Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which ended in what many others regarded as an unacceptable third-place finish behind Spain and Czech Republic.
With Scotland having won only three of their eight group games in Levein’s first assignment – two of them against Liechtenstein and the other at home to Lithuania – it appears something of a quantum leap to anticipate the prospect of maximum points in a section containing the Serbs, Belgium, Croatia, Wales and Macedonia. But
Levein is confident the experience he and his players have gained over the past two years make them genuine contenders to win Group A and end the country’s forlorn absence from major tournament finals.
“If you had asked me two years ago if the group we had then could win every game in our campaign, I would have hesitated and been a little unsure,” said Levein. “But I think we have a squad now capable of that. Whether we do or not we have to wait and see. The
players have earned my respect over the last two years by gradually improving their own personal performances and improving the performances of
“So I’ve got huge confidence in them. We’re in such a different place now than we were two years ago when I was just in the job and didn’t really know what I had, what system to play. We’re so far removed from that now that I’m hugely confident going into the game on Saturday.
“We are capable (of winning every game), yes. Definitely. Can we do it is the question. There are so many things that can happen in a match and dictate the game, outside of what we do. We saw that in the last campaign. But we are ready to go, everybody is prepared properly. The lads are hugely excited, I am hugely excited and I just can’t wait to get going.”
At the same time as setting the aspirational bar as high as possible on the eve of the campaign, however, Levein is in no mood to embrace the notion put forward by many punters and pundits alike in recent days that Scotland must take maximum points from the opening double header, with Macedonia’s visit to Hampden to follow on Tuesday night, if they are to have a credible chance of qualification.
“That’s a bit short-sighted, is it not?,” was his retort. “I know it’s been said, but not by anybody who knows what they’re talking about.
“We have ten games to play and we want to win every single match. That’s how it works. But it’s football, there are three outcomes. We’ve had them all and dealt with them all. Where we are as a group of players, and where I am in my head with what we’ve got available, we’re in a much better place.
“The idea behind playing the two home games first was to give us a better chance of getting off to a good start in the competition. But in this competition you can’t just say that we need to win our home games and not pick up anything elsewhere. We want to win every match and that’s how it’s going to be played.
“I said when the draw was made that we didn’t have a Spain in there, as we did last time. This year anything can happen. I believe 100 per cent in the group of players we have. There are some really tough matches and the bookies’ odds will reflect that in every game, whether or not we are favourites to win it.”
Levein’s verbal positivity has not always been matched by his tactical approach. Memories of 4-6-0 in Prague during the Euro 2012 campaign will not be easily banished from the minds of Scotland supporters who still harbour considerable reservations about the manager.
He is now committed to a 4-1-4-1 formation which he feels is best suited to the players at his disposal. Kenny Miller is expected to fill the lone striker role today, despite the emergence of Jordan Rhodes as another alternative to the exiled Steven Fletcher. Any talk of deploying two up front in the home matches is swatted away dismissively by Levein.
“People get hung up on this,” he said. “I went to watch our under-21s on Thursday night where two strikers (Johnny Russell and Leigh Griffiths) hardly created a chance. It doesn’t mean anything.
“It’s not about playing two strikers meaning you get more goals. That’s naive in the extreme. It’s about the tempo of the game and the technical ability of your players.
“If we play two strikers, then I’m
leaving out another hugely important player elsewhere. You are then ignoring all the other talents we have. What irritates me more than anything else are people who have played the game saying ‘just stick two strikers up front’. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not about how many strikers you’ve got, it’s about how many players get into goalscoring positions.
“It’s about how many people in your team can create, how the balance works and, most importantly, it’s about the tempo and the manner in which you play. We’ve got players in the team who score goals. I have done this job for a few years now, I’ve looked at the players we’ve got and the defence we’ve got and I’ve decided this is the best way for us to qualify.”
With Serbia noted as a robust and often pragmatic side, it suggests that goalmouth incidents may be at a premium this afternoon.
“Serbia are strong defensively,” agreed Levein. “In saying that, one of their best attacking players is a left back. So what does that say? Are they going to sit in? I don’t think so. We’re at home and our intention is to get all three points. I hear they’re intending to get all three points as well, so it’s going to be interesting.”
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