Strachan praises ‘brave’ Scotland win in Macedonia

GORDON Strachan has heaped praise on the little men with big hearts who delivered Scotland’s confidence-boosting World Cup qualifying victory over Macedonia in Skopje on Tuesday night.

Scotland players celebrate their victory against Macedonia. Picture: AP

The 2-1 win was achieved through significant contributions by players small in stature but, as the diminutive Strachan was himself throughout his playing career, lacking nothing in courage and commitment to try to play passing football.

While there were no failures in the Scotland side which produced the most impressive performance yet of Strachan’s tenure, there were especially eye-catching displays by the four players in the most advanced positions of the manager’s now firmly-favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

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Everton forward Steven Naismith, the tallest of the quarter at just 5ft 10ins, led the line intelligently in front of Ikechi Anya, Shaun Maloney and Barry Bannan, all of whom stand just 5ft 7ins tall.

Watford wing-back Anya and Wigan playmaker Maloney scored memorable goals as Scotland lifted themselves off the bottom of World Cup qualifying Group A, while Crystal Palace midfielder Bannan was composed in possession throughout his time on the pitch.

It had echoes of some of Strachan’s team selections at Celtic during one of his Champions League campaigns when he joked of needing to pick Snow White to lead out the seven dwarves in his line-up. But he was thrilled by the way they overcame any physical disadvantages to impose themselves on Macedonia with the quality of their work in possession.

“It was a little bit like that [seven dwarves] time,” smiled Strachan as he reflected on his second successive competitive away victory, following June’s 1-0 win over Croatia in Zagreb.

“You need to be braver when you’re that size. The front four on Tuesday night – Bannan, Maloney, Naismith and Anya – were so brave.

“The easy thing to do is just flick at the ball and hope for the best, trying to make sure you don’t make a mistake. You can just pass a bad ball on to someone else. But those boys generally gave each team-mate a good ball.

“Look, you worry every time you pick a side because you ask yourself if there is someone sitting there on the sidelines who you should have picked instead. But Tuesday was a time when everyone involved, from the players to the coaching staff, must be pleased with the input they gave.”

Strachan’s faith in Naismith’s ability to carry out the central striking role was fully vindicated. Although Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher will be his first choice for the position when available, Strachan has found an ideal deputy in the 26-year-old former Rangers player.

His only concern over Naismith remains the lack of first-team football he is currently experiencing at Everton where he has started just one game so far this season.

“I thought Naismith was terrific for us up front,” said Strachan. “He gave us a focal point, a landing area for the rest of the team. Every team needs that, all the good ones anyway. The midfield players appreciate that. It would be great if Steven could get more football now.”

There was particular satisfaction for Strachan in the brilliant 89th-minute winning goal in Skopje by Maloney. His technically perfect dead-ball execution was a tribute to his preparation levels, which Strachan believes are an example to every other player hoping to earn a place in the Scotland squad.

Maloney has played in all seven Scotland matches of Strachan’s tenure so far and the manager makes no secret of how highly he values the Wigan Athletic player, with whom he first worked during their time together at Celtic.

“I’ve known Shaun for eight years now and I know what he is capable of,” said Strachan.

“That’s why I’m so happy for him. He deserves any success which comes his way. I’ve seen other players he’s played alongside with who don’t work as hard as him, train as hard as him or commit themselves as much as him.

“Then they fall out of the game and say they were unlucky because the manager didn’t like them.

“No, that’s not the reason they fall out of the game. Listen, the manager loves any good player. It just so happens that Shaun works harder than anyone else, while also being a very good player.”

Strachan will now set his sights on trying to finish the 2014 World Cup campaign on a positive note when Scotland take on top seeds Croatia at Hampden in their final fixture on 15 October.

He believes the win in Macedonia has set the template for what he expects from his players, both on the pitch and in their willingness to be part of the Scotland set-up.

“Tuesday night was a marker for us, that’s for sure,” he added. “But it is also a marker to the other players who want to try to get into this Scotland team.

“It’s not going to be easy for them to do that after the way the lads performed out there against Macedonia.

“They are going to need to play like that and be brave like that on the ball. You also need to be committed to the group.”