Gordon Strachan warns Scotland of Georgia danger

Georgia might have provided a chilling echo of that ill-fated night in Tbilisi eight years ago by sending for goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze. However, Gordon Strachan has a convenient way of dealing with this painful defeat by claiming to not even 
recall a game that still haunts the psyche of most Scots.

Gordon Strachan faces the media in Glasgow yesterday. Picture: SNS

Perhaps he is suffering from denial. Whatever the reason for not wishing to discuss a clash that took place when he 
undoubtedly had other things on his mind as manager of Celtic, he has no interest in something he considers to be ancient history. “I don’t remember it,” he said bluntly yesterday. “The world’s changed since 2007. We’ve had a banking crisis since then. All sorts of things have changed since then.

“I’ve got an iWatch now. If people had said you’d have one of those in 2007 they’d have laughed at you.”

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That isn’t to say the lessons of the Euro 2008 qualifier, when Scotland slipped to a disastrous 2-0 defeat, should be ignored. It could be why Strachan has selected an experienced 26-man squad for the up-coming double header, against Georgia and the world champions Germany.

From it he needs to select a side equipped to do a job in Tbilisi in the first and perhaps most challenging of the pair of tests. Strachan might not struggle with the baggage of an October night eight years ago, but plenty others do.

There remains the feeling that Scotland underestimated a side forced to play the then 17-year-old Makaridze in goal. Before his surprise call-up this week his last appearance for his country came in 2008, the year after and he his team-mates frustrated Alex McLeish’s Scotland.

The injury-stricken Georgia also fielded 16-year-old Levan Kenia on a night when victory for Scotland would have seen the visitors almost certainly qualify for the finals. However, they were barely able to even test Makaridze. A loss to Italy in their last game condemned Scotland to third place in the group.

It stands as a warning before Scotland’s equally important return to Tbilisi next week. Strachan has spoken before of his delight at his side’s performance in the home win over Georgia at Ibrox last year. He has described the display in the first hour of the narrow 1-0 win as being the best of his tenure. But even then Scotland could easily have dropped points when Georgia substitute Irakli Dzaria dragged a shot wide from the edge of the box in the dying minutes.

Now under new manager Kakhaber Tskhadadze, who replaced former Dundee midfielder Temuri Ketsbaia in December, Georgia lost their last qualifier 4-0 to Poland. However, Strachan urged those still not convinced by the threat posed by Georgia to look beyond the scoreline.

“If people think it’s going to be a straightforward game, I’d say go on YouTube and watch Poland playing in Georgia, because, although they won 4-0, they scored three in the last five minutes,” he said. “Then come back to me and say it’s a formality. I don’t think anyone would say it’ll be a formality after watching that.”

It certainly won’t be straightforward getting there, with Scotland flying two days before the game, rather than the day before as is normal.

“It’s a different world now,” pointed out Strachan, again. “It takes four and a bit hours to get there. When I used to go with Aberdeen if you wanted to go somewhere like that you went Aberdeen – Heathrow–Schipol – somewhere else. And you had to take your own boots with you. You’d be having a game of cards crouched at the back somewhere. It’s a different thing now, night and day.”

He described a three-hour time difference as being one of the challenges that needs to be overcome. “That you have to look at,” he said. “Nobody’s come up with the perfect way of travelling and water intake and so on. You can’t guarantee away victories in these places.”

Strachan has selected a squad he believes hands Scotland the best chance of claiming three points. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t agree failure to secure a win will fatally damage their hopes of qualifying for the finals next summer.

Allan McGregor’s return means Scotland’s goalkeeper options are a trio of players who have 95 caps between them. Grant Hanley’s availability after injury means the central defensive position becomes less problematic due to the option of playing someone who, despite being only 23 years old, brings 17 caps of experience.

Midfield, meanwhile, sees a familiar raft of experienced campaigners, with Scott Brown, James Morrison and Darren Fletcher included. It will be interesting whether Strachan decides to play Fletcher, one of only three current players who featured in Tbilisi eight years ago (Craig Gordon and Shaun Maloney are the others). He has been an unused substitute in the last two competitive internationals.

Strachan is not overly concerned that so many players having fallen out of favour at their clubs. They have proved their worth to him enough times to justify him having faith in them. But it must nevertheless be a disappointment to see players such as Steven Naismith and Alan Hutton struggle to break into their sides, Everton and Aston Villa respectively, this season, after winning the fight to play regularly during the last campaign. Even striker Steven Fletcher was dropped to the bench at the weekend in Sunderland’s draw with Swansea.

“The likes of Alan and Steven Naismith have earned the right to be included. I like to think I’m quite loyal that way,” said Strachan. “We wanted a club-type atmosphere and I think we’ve got that now.”

He revealed he was up until 9pm with assistant Mark McGhee deciding who should occupy the “two or three places” he described as being up for grabs.

“If you guys had picked a Scotland squad last night, you’d probably have chosen 22 or 23 of the names that are in it,” he said. “After that you’re playing about with two or three places, and that’s what we do as well. There were probably 15 names we had to narrow it down from for the last three or four places.”

Strachan feels for Naismith, who has come on as a substitute in each of Everton’s three league games so far this season. “When you’re a football person, someone who’s played it and who loves the game the way that Steven Naismith does, you can see that he just wants to play. Roberto Martinez has a fantastic squad and it’s hard to get a game there.”

The hope is that those such as Naismith who are yearning for game-time are ready to give everything on a night in Georgia that could potentially mean everything for Scotland’s qualification chances.