IN THE build-up to Friday night’s daunting assignment in Zagreb, Steven Naismith might have anticipated being on the receiving end of a significant amount of good-natured ribbing from one of his Everton team-mates about what Croatia have in store for Scotland.
But, instead of dire warnings of a goal-laden defeat, all Naismith has heard from Nikica Jelavic so far is a weather forecast which has eased fears that oppressive Balkan summer heat will add to Scotland’s difficulties.
“He sent me a text to say it’s wet and windy there just now,” smiled Naismith. “There has been a little bit back and forth between us this week, but he hasn’t said too much about the game itself. I think that’s because he hasn’t been playing regularly and he fears he might end up on the bench on Friday night.”
It says much for Croatia’s firepower that Jelavic struggles to hold down a place in their starting line-up. The former Rangers striker scored the first goal of their Group A campaign in the 1-0 win over Macedonia last September but has since found himself down a pecking order headed by Bayern Munich star Mario Mandzukic.
With Ivica Olic of Wolfsburg and the Ukraine-based pair of Eduardo and Nikola Kalinic providing Croatia coach Igor Stimac with other options to partner Mandzukic, Jelavic has been an unused substitute in his country’s last three qualifiers as they go toe-to-toe with Belgium at the top of Group A.
“Their forwards are really strong,” added Naismith. “Their midfield are also good and they like to bomb forward all the time. Their right and left backs are almost like wingers when they are attacking.
“They are all comfortable on the ball, so they will play the risky pass into the centre midfielder when he is under pressure. It goes from there and that makes them the team they are. We have already looked at some footage of them this week but I am sure the manager will tell us a lot more over the coming days.”
Naismith is poised to win his 22nd cap for Scotland in the Maksimir Stadium and is already serving under his fourth manager for the national team.
The 26-year-old, who has just completed a solid if unremarkable first season in the English Premier League with four goals and 15 starting appearances for Everton, has been impressed by the initial changes Strachan has made to the Scotland set-up since replacing Craig Levein.
“The training has been a lot more intense,” said Naismith. “We had a double session on Sunday and then another tough one on Monday. That’s the way it is going to be and he has stamped that on the squad early doors.
“He has also brought in a sports scientist to work with us closely, to see where everybody is in terms of fitness. He knows that it could vary, because some of the players finished their seasons earlier than others.
“Since he came in, he has made it clear what he wants from us. His attention to detail, in terms of watching the players in training, is obvious. So you have to put it in on the training ground, as well as when the games come around.”
With six withdrawals from Strachan’s original squad, in addition to the unavailability of Charlie Mulgrew and George Boyd who are both getting married and the international retirement of Kris Commons, questions have been raised over the general level of commitment towards Scotland from players.
“For me, it’s still the highest level you can play at,” added Naismith. “Personally, I don’t think there is a different attitude towards playing for Scotland.
“The manager has spoken to us about getting the fight back in the squad, but it’s not as if players are going out not to do their best. I can understand what he is saying, that he wants us to be fighting for each other and have each other’s backs when things are tough.
“The boys are going out to do their best, but when you look at some of the games which have been close recently, if people had made the right decisions at key moments it would have been different. The Serbia game at Hampden sticks in my mind – if I had scored with the chance I had to put us ahead, we could have closed the game out and built from there. But this campaign has just not gone for us.”