Back to reality for Levein in Scots’ must-win games

CRAIG Levein has experienced the novelty of spending the last 11 months in football’s equivalent of a parallel universe. The scheduling quirks of European Championship qualifying Group I left the Scotland manager without a competitive fixture to deal with for almost a year.

It is a period in which Levein has been able to build himself a much-improved statistical record in the job while also seeing enough in the performances of his team in challenge matches to convince him Scotland are, to borrow his phrase, in a “much better place” than they were 12 months ago.

This week, we will discover if Levein’s upbeat assessment of the national team stands up to the scrutiny of the real world.

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Scottish football has seldom been in greater need of a boost to its morale and reputation and the onus is firmly on Levein and his players to deliver it over the next six weeks.

The arithmetic is simple enough, with Scotland assured of a place in the Euro 2012 play-offs if they win their next three games, the imminent Hampden double-header against Czech Republic and Lithuania before the away fixture in Liechtenstein on 8 October.

The most difficult part of the equation would certainly appear to come first. This Saturday’s visit of the Czechs sees Levein not only requiring victory but, whether he concurs or not, also in need of redemption.

For there are many who believe Levein’s tenure as Scotland manager, however long it lasts, will forever be scarred by the 4-6-0 tactics he deployed against the Czechs in the 1-0 defeat at the Synot Tip Arena in Prague last October.

He remains unapologetic about his decision to send out a side without a recognised striker that fateful Friday night, reasoning that he did not know enough about the players at his disposal at that stage to consider a more positive approach.

Yet just four days later, Levein felt either able or compelled to send out a more attack-minded side against Spain at Hampden when Scotland, while understandably outclassed for lengthy periods by the world champions, produced a stirring display in going down 3-2.

Since then, Levein has consistently showed more confidence in the attacking capabilities of his players, albeit in six matches devoid of the pressure of having to pick up qualification points.

Victories against the Faroe Islands and under-strength Northern Ireland and Wales sides helped breed confidence among Levein’s squad, without being especially instructive in measuring what progress they have made since last year. Defeats against Brazil and the Republic of Ireland indicated that the Scots may continue to struggle against higher-level opposition.

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In that regard, the 2-1 win at Hampden earlier this month over a Denmark side ranked more than 30 places above Scotland in the Fifa world rankings perhaps provided the first solid evidence that the bright future being sketched by Levein may be something more than just a flight of fancy.

He now has a 50 per cent win rate from his 12 games in charge, a record which currently compares favourably with most of his predecessors. But the fact remains Levein has so far guided Scotland to just one competitive victory, the excruciating 2-1 win over Leichtenstein at Hampden when Stephen McManus’ stoppage-time goal spared the manager from being responsible for what would arguably have been the worst result in the country’s international history.

To a degree, Levein has since succeeded in distancing himself from the first half of the Group I campaign which saw Scotland’s only other point come from the dismal 0-0 draw against Lithuania in Kaunas.

It is back to reality now, however, and anything less than maximum points from the Czechs on Saturday and the Lithuanians three days later will not only end Scottish hopes of reaching next year’s finals but expose Levein’s vision of the progress made in the last 11 months as no more than a mirage.