Scots’ confidence grows after Germany performance

ONCE the applause has died away and the frustration has faded. When the thrill of running the world champions so close has subsided there must come the realisation that a more significant challenge awaits.

Ikechi Anya, who Scotlands equaliser against Germany on Sunday night, has proved to be a stand-out addition to the squad, and he has impressed manager Gordon Strachan with his attitude on and off the pitch. Picture: Getty
Ikechi Anya, who Scotlands equaliser against Germany on Sunday night, has proved to be a stand-out addition to the squad, and he has impressed manager Gordon Strachan with his attitude on and off the pitch. Picture: Getty

Less than five weeks from now, Scotland face a first meaningful home game in 17 months. Not since Gordon Strachan’s reign began in earnest against Wales has there been such a pressing need to secure victory. The home fixture with Georgia, and the one the following month against Republic of Ireland, were always going to be those on which much rests.

Sunday night’s 2-1 defeat to Germany was the most acceptable form of failure in that it was undeniably heartening. But the result, coupled with Republic of Ireland’s late victory in Tbilisi, has only brought the need to take three points from the next match of the campaign into sharper focus.

Perhaps Ibrox will prove a welcome temporary new home for the Scots. With the crowd closer to the pitch than at Hampden, Georgia are bound to face a partisan atmosphere. As well as raucous support, however, patience might also be required. Strachan’s next task is to adjust slightly his well-honed plans for containing opponents. Now Scotland must cope with being the ones expected to be on the front foot.

Strachan, more than anyone, is aware of this. And he knows that it need not be an uncomfortable thought. He explained yesterday how he now has more faith in his players. “I’m getting to know people better and what they can do,” he said. “Maybe I trust them a wee bit more.”

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Scotland showed again on Sunday that they are a team on an upward trajectory with a second-half performance at the Westfalenstadion that more than compensated for such a tentative opening 45 minutes.

A first defeat in over a year has in no way interrupted the trend for improvement discerned since the 1-0 victory over Croatia last summer. Strachan has continually referenced that night in Zagreb as being a crucial staging post in his tenure. It was then when it was confirmed to him there were possibilities with this group of players.

The one significant addition to the pool since then is continuing to prove the find of Strachan’s reign. Ikechi Anya’s emergence on the international scene has been a major plus point. Off the pitch, his enthusiasm is rubbing off on his teammates. On the pitch they recognise that he is more than just an outlet. He is also a goal-threat. Respectful but bubbly, hard working and yet full of playful mischief, he is the type of conscript Strachan likes to have around.

Strachan believes Anya’s attitude stems partly from the knowledge that his international career has been so hard-won, following such knocks as being released by Oxford United in his late teens. In effect he had to start again, enrolling at Glenn Hoddle’s academy for discarded professional footballers in Spain.

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“His personality is really infectious,” said Strachan. “Every morning myself and the staff are the first ones up for breakfast. Sometimes we are even there before breakfast opens up. But every morning Ikechi is the first player through those doors. Always. Never fails. He looks like he’s a guy who can’t wait to get out of his bed in the morning, to go training and meet people. His personality is: ‘Right, I want to make the most of what I’ve got’.

“Maybe it’s because he came into professional football so late in life,” he mused. “You have to take a few knocks to appreciate what you’ve got and that might be the case with him. He has felt pressure, he knows how that feels. And now every day it’s like he thinks he’s won a prize just to be there training with us.”

Strachan has proved again that he is prepared to make difficult decisions. One wonders whether any of his predecessors would have acted the way he did on Sunday as it became clear that it was not turning out to be one of Darren Fletcher’s better nights. The game had yet to hit the 60-minute mark when Fletcher’s number was flashed up on a substitutes’ board.

Off came the skipper and up went some eyebrows. James McArthur came on, as did Steven Fletcher for Barry Bannan, in what were positive, very deliberate changes. Scotland went on to enjoy their best period in the match, with Steven Fletcher setting up Anya’s thrilling 66th-minute equaliser.

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In training last week, Strachan said that he was reminded just what a good player Steven Fletcher is. “He’s a real player, a big elegant guy who can take the ball in,” said Strachan. “All Fletcher needs is goals now and that will come by playing more games.”

But Strachan, too, can again feel satisfied with his own performance. He was vindicated in his biggest decision of all when electing to play David Marshall over Allan McGregor in goal.

The easier decision would have been picking McGregor – the majority expected it, and he could have explained it away quite easily with a comment about how he was swayed by McGregor’s Premier League status, as opposed to Marshall, who has dropped into the Championship with Cardiff City.

McGregor could yet start against Georgia. But, in demoting him on Sunday, Strachan has risked irking the Hull City goalkeeper. Marshall, by contrast, has proved himself to be a willing No 2. Whether McGregor is prepared to settle for this role, even temporarily, remains to be seen. It is a challenge that will tell Strachan a lot about his character. Perhaps this is what he intended it to be – a test.

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There are further tests to come for Strachan’s team too, starting next month. He said yesterday that it is “guaranteed” there will be some heartache between now and the end of the campaign. But he also suggested the recent near misses against formidable opponents in England and Germany were stepping stones on the way to something altogether more epic – qualification for Euro 2016.