When he lay in bed after the 3-0 triumph in Lithuania, Gordon Strachan said he only had one thing on his mind – Malta.
The next match up, against the group minnows at Hampden tomorrow night, is the latest in the series of must-win games and while he has faith that the men who emerged victorious in Vilnius will be able to see out the next stage of the task at Hampden, he has insisted that patience will be a virtue.
“You have the game, you get on the bus and as soon as you’re on the bus you think ‘right, Malta’,” said Strachan as he looked back on Friday night’s result, which was described as arguably the most complete of his tenure. But while the rest of the country and his players celebrated, the national boss was already pondering how his men could prolong their chances of qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
“That stops you enjoying it,” he added. “You wake up during the night [and think] ‘Malta’. So you don’t have too much time but it was good to see the players afterwards, enjoying the victory.”
Asked if he would have accepted the position Scotland are in at this stage of the qualifying campaign when he set out on the journey, Strachan gave an emphatic “no”. “Because I thought we would have been better than that.”
But slip-ups at home to Lithuania and the agony of a conceding a late goal to England to allow the Auld Enemy to flee Glasgow with a draw, has left things more delicately balanced than he would have liked.
Scotland have never won four games in a row in a single World Cup qualifying campaign but the likelihood is that they will have to do just that to make it to Russia. According to Strachan, though, no-one in the squad is daunted by that. But they are fully aware of the difficulty of the road ahead.
Next month’s double headers will bring the group stage to a close and, provided Scotland don’t slip up tomorrow, the penultimate match against Slovakia at Hampden on 5 October promises to be a titanic affair. Three days later Strachan will take his team to Slovenia.
But first there is Malta to deal with. Strachan was able to watch their game against England yesterday afternoon, and he knows that the fact the Group F leaders had to keep pushing and pushing before they were able to finally pull away from the side who have yet to pick up a point in this campaign, means his men face a task that will be tougher than many might expect.
“We have a good idea [how they play],” Strachan added. “They have always been playing five at the back, four in midfield and one up. It’s a 5-3-1-1 or something. They are always difficult. When Lithuania played them it was nearly 80 minutes before they scored the first goal and it took England long enough on Friday night.”
Scotland kicked off their Group F matches with a 5-1 win away to tomorrow’s opponents but for those who remember only the scoreline, there was a warning from the manager. The Scots suffered a shock as Malta fought back from going a goal behind and the score was level at the interval. A fortunate penalty and red card early in the second half turned things the way of the guests, while the home team lost their discipline, another player and four goals.
“Look at that game and we got breaks at the right time,” acknowledged Strachan. “We said afterwards that we were lucky to get the breaks and we didn’t disguise that. We didn’t think it was a 5-1 mauling. We just thought it was a good performance, with the breaks at the right time. But how hard did England find it to break them down? How hard did other teams find it?
“Getting the first goal against them is the most important thing. Lithuania took nearly 80 minutes to get their first goal against them and that was from a corner kick. The key for us is patience. If you come along to the game and think it’s going to be shots from everywhere, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not going to be like that. They’ve got so many big people in their team and they’re really disciplined and strong. So it’s going to be a night for real patience and if you’re going to get upset and flustered, it’ll play into their hands. Our 5-1 was on a night when everything went for us.”
He can’t control how the Hampden crowd will react to that set of circumstances but he is confident that he now has the players who not only possess the confidence not to panic but also the ability to ultimately make the breakthrough.
Friday night’s team featured ten changes to the side that faced Lithuania a year ago and the same would be true of the line-up against Malta, provided he gives into the temptation to stick with the guys who delivered on Friday night.
“That’s what happens in a year. There is a shift in the players I expect to start games now,” said Strachan. “When you are defending, that’s when you do most of your coaching, but when you are attacking you leave it to players you think can win the game for you and the players we are picking to do that are now winning games for us. Maybe a wee while back the players we thought would win us games, didn’t.
“It is as simple as that. The system that we set up defensively helps to ensure we don’t lose the game and although we have always had that, going forward we need the imagination and need players to do it and at this moment they are.”