Scotland players will adapt to Lithuania's pitch '“ Mark McGhee

It already looks worryingly like a ready-made excuse for failure on Friday night but Mark McGhee insists the artificial playing surface at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius has not spooked the Scotland players even before they set foot on it.

28/08/17 
 SCOTLAND TRAINING 
 MAR HALL - BISHOPTON 
 Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee
28/08/17 SCOTLAND TRAINING MAR HALL - BISHOPTON Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee

It will be the first time Scotland have played a competitive international on a synthetic pitch, an issue which is in danger of disproportionately dominating the build-up to the must-win World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.

Captain Scott Brown has expressed his distaste for such surfaces to the extent he feels 
they should be banned from 
international football.

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But Scotland assistant manager McGhee is confident it will be the last thing on the players’ minds as they seek the victory which will sustain their hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup finals.

“I don’t think it’s in our heads,” said McGhee. “We have a group of players where, I think the best expression for it is to say there are no prima donnas. They will be happy to go and train on the pitch when we get there on Thursday, just so they get a feel for the ball and after that, I don’t think they will bat an eyelid.

“We will also train on an artificial surface at Morton’s training ground this week, even though all these surfaces you go on seem to be a little bit different.

“There’s an important fact that I feel has changed with these surfaces. They are no longer a threat to the health and safety of the players. The surfaces are now good. Even the older ones, the poorer ones you see that maybe need a bit of work, they are still better than they were when we played on a billiard table on top of a bit of concrete or a bit of slate.

“The issue with the plastic pitches for me is with the way the ball runs, and how you can run with the ball or can’t run with the ball. It’s more about the type of game it produces, for me, than the health and safety of the players. Most of the players feel that.

“I know sometimes somebody has an injury and doesn’t like training on it, but the modern ones are fairly forgiving. I don’t think there’s an issue with that.

“The reason we are training on one is so we can familiarise ourselves with it and because there is a different way of the ball running and bouncing. It’s not to try and convince them they can play on it without getting injured, because that’s not what we think.

“The Celtic players, for example, have played Champions League games on them. They’ve not got any issues with that. A lot of Scottish-based players will have trained on these pitches over the winter and I’m sure most of the boys down south have.”

McGhee accepts Scotland no longer have any margin for error in their remaining four Group F fixtures if they are to claim at least second place and a potential play-off fixture.

“I don’t think we can keep saying ‘well, you know…’,” he added. “If we’re going to qualify – or even have a chance of qualifying – then yes, we have to win this game, definitely.

“We can’t hide from that. Even if we win this one we cannot be sure of making it but we have to assume that to get through we need to win the four games.

“After beating Slovenia and then drawing with England in the last two, it wouldn’t just be one step back, it would be a big step back if we don’t go and win this game.

“We are a better squad now than we were when we played Lithuania at Hampden earlier in the group. Players have improved and one or two have come in and made a difference – Stuart Armstrong, for instance. So I think we’re a better team than we were before. We have more to ourselves now to play against Lithuania than we did when we drew with them.”

One much remarked-upon absentee from the Scotland squad this week is the country’s most expensive player, Oliver Burke, pictured, who last week completed a £15 million move from RB Leipzig to West Bromwich Albion.

The 20-year-old forward will instead be with the Scotland under-21s when they face the Netherlands next week in a European Championship qualifier. McGhee was sorry to see Burke’s stay in German football last just one 
season.

“That’s really disappointing,” he said. “But Oliver has moved to a fantastic league and an established club. He’s got a great move back but he hasn’t performed the way they would have hoped in Germany and I don’t know what has happened that persuaded Leipzig to let him come back.

“We think he’s a tremendous talent, but he needs to play games and find a way of playing and find his game. At the moment his strengths, power and size and crossing ability and goalscoring potential is huge – but he has to find his place in a team and he can only do that by playing games.

“I think we need to be patient with him and not write him off (for Scotland) this year. He has to learn to be part of a team. He’s still raw even though he’s been in Germany. I hope the German way has rubbed off on him.

“When he went away with our under-20s to the Toulon Tournament in the summer the report back on him was outstanding. He was made captain and he played and behaved like a captain. Clearly he has the potential to be that disciplined player as shown with the younger team.

“I’ve also never seen anyone quicker in all my years in the game and he now has to apply that to his game. If he can do that he’ll be fine.”