SOME context is required when assessing the potential for Gibraltar to even merely prove an irritant to Scotland at Hampden this evening. The visitors’ manager, Davie Wilson, has said an acceptable scoreline would involve “losing three or four goals”.
No mention of scoring any, but Wilson is irked that his team from the Rock have been jelly at the back to lose 21 goals in four qualifiers. More acceptable would have been conceding just the “15 or 16”.
It’s one of those you think it might never come, and it’s a terrible result
Privately, those close to the Gibraltarians would be delighted if their team could hold out against their Hampden hosts for more than 12 minutes – the longest they have kept a clean sheet in Group D, which came when they proved veritably stuffy by their standards in restricting home team Germany to four goals in November.
It isn’t possible to spin the latest qualifier for Gordon Strachan’s side as anything other than a breeze of a win. And yet. The Scottish footballing psyche demands that the most doom-laden of doomsday scenarios is considered and guarded against. Steven Naismith has more reason than most for being alive to all possibilities.
The Everton attacker carries the psychological scarring of Scotland’s jammy escape against Liechtenstein in September 2010. He was thrown on after 66 minutes that evening in place of Kris Boyd with the score at 1-1, manager Craig Levein having flirted with the sackable offence of losing to a principality boasting a population of 35,000. That is 5,000 more than newly-competing Gibraltar, who are naturally ranked 54th of the 54 teams in the Euro qualifiers.
Yet, even if Liechtenstein might have been higher up the food chain and had caused the odd upset since their elevation to full UEFA membership in the early 1990s, they were scuffling along the low 40s when they almost pulled off the most shocking result in a Hampden international. That was averted by Kenny Miller’s 63rd minute equaliser that cancelled out a Mario Frick opener in the first minute of the second period before Stephen McManus headed a winner in the seventh minute of stoppage time.
Naismith, who could be one of four survivors from the shiver-inducing experience along with Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher and Alan Hutton, remembers the “relief” of averting disaster. “You’re thinking the chance was gone,” he said. “But we got the result in the end. It’s one of those you think it might never come, and it’s a terrible result.
“For these kind of occasions, people might go into them thinking: We’ve got 90 minutes, we’ve got ages. Then before you know it it’s half-time. Then ten or 15 minutes of the second half are gone. That’s when it starts getting edgy. It only takes a mistake or a slip for them to get in and maybe take a chance. So you’ve got to be 100 per cent committed and focused on these games. We’ve got an experienced bunch here who are well aware of that.
“Let’s hope for a good performance and it’s been what it’s been like in this campaign – good, honest performances with some good football. It would be nice to do it the straightforward way, it’s about time we had a few good afternoons and that’s what the boys will be aiming for.”
With seven points from three games, and the only defeat of the Euro 2016 campaign coming against the world champions Germany on their own patch, Naismith believes Scotland have put some distance between them and that grim period under Levein. “I think we’re more confident now as a group and in terms of getting the ball out of feet and passing it sharper, overall, we’re doing that. Players are now encouraged to play the dangerous passes that unlock teams, rather than side by side and a bit of pedestrian football. That’s been the difference and it’s showed in the performances and results.
“Everyone says it’s a foregone conclusion [against Gibraltar] but as players we know how difficult sometimes it turns out. I know from my time with Scotland there have been games where we should’ve been winning five and six nil. As well as Liechtenstein, Faroes have been tough in the past. So we’ll be going out, trying to start at a good tempo and get that early first goal.
“We are players who are playing at a decent level of the Championship or Premier League so we’re confident with the way we play and are confident on the ball.
“I think the manager will be asking us to do more of the same. The longer you have it and the other team are chasing it’s just tiring them out and you are keeping your energy for the right moment it’s going to be to break them down. Gibraltar will be no different. Gibraltar’s results so far have been pretty high-scoring and, in the clips we’ve watched, Germany and teams like that have had sustained pressure. Whenever Gibraltar are winning the ball back or clearing it, these teams are quick to win the ball back, or if they clear it long they are picking it up at the halfway line instead of their own half. We have to be well organised, we have to be in a position and ready to win the ball back when we do lose it. When we’ve got it, we need to make them work really hard.”
Naismith, perhaps thinking wishfully, doesn’t believe that the Scotland support – expected to be in the region of a healthy 35,000 – will make the afternoon hard work for their players if they are knocking in goals from the very early stages. “I think the fans will be realistic and understand that if we’re at a good tempo and knocking the ball about well, we’ll be confident enough we’ll get the goals. We will look to do that, calm the crowd down, calm everyone down and so hope to make it a good and enjoyable day.” That would make it a rarity for such occasions.
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