Rio was ‘good fun’, now Gordon Strachan is serious

GORDON Strachan was entertained rather than heartened by Wednesday night’s game between Germany and Argentina in Dusseldorf. Describing Germany’s shock 4-2 defeat as a “celebration of football”, the Scotland manager is not now about to make the mistake of reading too much into it ahead of Sunday’s opening Group D Euro 2016 qualifying clash in Dortmund.
Gordon Strachan was in good spirits at Scotlands Mar Hall training base yesterday. Picture: SNSGordon Strachan was in good spirits at Scotlands Mar Hall training base yesterday. Picture: SNS
Gordon Strachan was in good spirits at Scotlands Mar Hall training base yesterday. Picture: SNS

He issued a reminder yesterday that it had been only a friendly. Things are due to get serious again on Sunday night, for Scotland as well as Germany. Strachan said he is “excited” about the prospect after a summer spent watching the World Cup in Brazil as a pundit for ITV.

Scotland have not played a competitive match since rounding off their World Cup qualifying campaign with a victory over Croatia at Hampden Park on 15 October – almost a year ago. “I didn’t mind Rio, that was good fun,” said Strachan yesterday. “But that was just fantasy football. This is real.”

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As his assistant Mark McGhee did earlier in the week, Strachan cautioned against believing Scotland have nothing to lose at Westfalenstadion. Some have described the clash as amounting to a friendly as far as Scotland are concerned, given that very few believe they can secure anything of worth from a trip to play the recently-crowned world champions. But Strachan warned that this isn’t the case.

There is always plenty on the line and Scotland can ill-afford a heavy loss after making such great strides recently, and before a run of three more competitive games in just nine weeks. While perhaps making reference to a 5-0 defeat in his first game as Celtic manager against Artmedia Bratislava, Strachan said he knows how hard it is to lift yourself following a multi-goal loss. Brazil themselves couldn’t do it after the remarkable 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat by Germany in Belo Horizonte, going down meekly to the Netherlands in the third and fourth place play-off.

“We have plenty to lose,” stressed Strachan, who is relishing the beginning of what he hopes will be a first full campaign in charge of the national team. “I remember teams playing Celtic in a cup final and saying they had nothing to lose – well, yes they did.

“If you get beaten badly it’s not great,” he added. “I’ve been there. Someone tells me I have nothing to lose and then I get beaten it doesn’t feel great, I can tell you. No matter what the score, losing is never great.

It doesn’t work simply saying ‘Ah, but it’s Germany’. It’s never great to lose.”

Strachan chose not to play a friendly this week and yet Scotland have still managed to lose three important players in Hull City’s Andy Robertson, Ipswich Town’s Christophe Berra and West Bromwich Albion’s Graham Dorrans through injury. Midfielder Dorrans dropped out yesterday morning, after Robertson and Berra had been forced to withdraw on Wednesday.

Despite that, nothing has happened this week to convince Strachan he should have done things differently.

“Had we played a friendly we’d only have one day to prepare and that’s with boys who may have been a bit tired,” he said. “I think the intensity we have had out of the boys in training this week couldn’t have been done if we’d had a friendly. No chance.”

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The players were given a day off yesterday after what Strachan reported was four days of hard work, starting at 8am and finishing at 10pm. Because of the absence of any distractions, Scotland have been able to focus on the Germans since Sunday night, when they gathered at their training base at Mar Hall.

The trouble is knowing who to focus on, however. “I remember a few years ago when you played Romania you knew the danger came from Hagi,” said Strachan. “You had to look after him – or perhaps stay away from him in my case! There are teams like that with one guy who pulled the strings. But the

Germans are so rounded, and that is why they won the World Cup. They didn’t have to rely on one player.”

A combination of injuries and retirement means Germany are likely to be much changed on Sunday night. Skipper Philipp Lahm, defender Per Mertesacker and record-breaking World Cup goals striker Miroslav Klose have opted to end to their international careers at the very top, while Joachim Löw has also lost Julian Draxler following Wednesday’s defeat due to a thigh knock. The Germany manager must also cope with fresh injury concerns over Jérôme Boateng, Mezut Özil and Mats Hummels. Newly-named skipper Bastian Schweinsteiger has already dropped out of contention due to a knee injury.

Nevertheless, Löw’s side present quite a challenge as Scotland prepare to face reigning world champions for the first time since Spain in the qualifiers for Euro 2012.

But Strachan is comfortable with the prospect. He is certainly a lot more comfortable than he would have been had the world champions been next on the fixture list after successive defeats by Wales and Serbia, shortly into his tenure as manager.

The 2-1 loss in March last year to Wales, which included an opening spell that Strachan later described as the worst he has seen from a team under his charge, was swiftly followed by a possibly more dispiriting 2-0 reversal in the Serbian city of Novi Sad. These were not good times. But slowly Strachan has managed to make his mark on the team.

Players such as Chris Martin and Ikechi Anya have emerged, to use Strachan’s phrase, “from nowhere”. According to the manager, Scotland are now in much better shape than they were 14 months ago, which is when he decided to change the shape of the team.

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“I had an idea what I wanted to do when I first came in,” he said. “Then I realised it would not work, so we tried this.

“We have had additions to the squad that have made it a little bit different. We now have [Steven] Naismith, [Chris] Martin and [Steven] Fletcher, which is a good three if you want a target man. They’ve got movement and bring people into play.

“So, yes, if you’d asked me to play Germany right after the Wales and Serbia games, that wouldn’t have been fun. This is a challenge. But, because of what has happened over the last 14 months and the group we have got together it has become a challenge that we can achieve.”

Strachan confirmed that Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher would be his captain.

Scott Brown wore the armband during Fletcher’s long absence through illness, but the Celtic midfielder is out with a hamstring problem.