Stretching back to his days as an Aberdeen player, and such feats as overcoming the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, Alex McLeish is no stranger to giant-killing.
He has been a victim of such acts – Costa Rica at Italia 90 springs to mind – as well as revelled in them, with his first stint as Scotland manager including a victory over France in the Parc des Princes. He is, however, certain what it will constitute if his auxiliary Scotland side manage to defeat Peru and Mexico, or either one of them, in equally partisan venues over the coming days.
“Hopefully, we can do a giant-killing act,” said McLeish. “Wigan beat Manchester City in a recent FA Cup game, so we are looking for those kind of performances and the fellows to play above their performance levels like they have never done before.”
Wins in either of the fixtures would certainly count as sizeable scalps against teams set to participate in the World Cup, especially in view of the straitened circumstances Scotland currently find themselves in. All the fears about the scheduling of a tour to another continent at the end of long, hard season are being realised as McLeish surveys the rubble of his squad.
At one point, McLeish expressed a desire to field close to two different teams in the games, given the specific demands placed on the players due to the climate and, in Mexico City at least, high altitude. At this rate he might be playing himself.
Scotland were already facing a tall order even without the raft of calls-offs which, combined with the absence of Celtic players as well as Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, has left McLeish’s options looking so limited. He is relying on those such as Lewis Stevenson, a 30-year-old uncapped full- back. There are still six uncapped players in total featuring in the squad – as it stands. “It is getting quite thin,” McLeish accepted yesterday after delivering the news Stuart Armstrong and John Souttar are the latest to declare their unavailability due to injury.
In Armstrong’s case this was picked up in the 18 minutes he was on the park for Celtic in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final victory over Motherwell. He was the Celtic player named in the original squad after McLeish struck an agreement with manager Brendan Rodgers to look elsewhere for the most part. Rodgers was keen for his players to have adequate rest after a 61-match season and with a quick turnaround before Champions League qualifiers begin again. Hearts defender Souttar, meanwhile, was dogged by a hip complaint towards the end of the season.
McLeish was doing his best to be upbeat yesterday. He dismissed the scepticism he knew would surround the latest withdrawals, particularly Armstrong’s. “He genuinely wanted to come,” said the Scotland manager, who revealed the midfielder had “tweaked” a hamstring. “You have to hope everyone else genuinely wanted to come to play for their country and enhance their careers,” he added. “It is not to be. It is a shame to lose him – he is a very experienced guy with under ten caps and a tremendous player. But we are looking forward to the overall grand scheme of things.”
McLeish admitted having an inkling Souttar might not make the trip after there was no response to a fitness-for-duty evaluation form sent out to players.
“We didn’t hear from him, so we thought there was a wee red flag there,” said the manager. “John has had to pull out.
“The kid is gagging to play for the full national team,” he added. “He has come through the system and the process and had a good season next to big Christophe (Berra), so hopefully he will keep learning and studying his game and improve on what has been a very good season for him.”
McLeish acknowledged the odds of Scotland gaining a result in either game have probably lengthened – hence his giant-killing comment. However, he wasn’t about to make a fuss. Scotland still have 21 players in their travelling party and this could be augmented by the recruitment of centre-half Danny Wilson and winger Sam Nicholson, who play for the same Denver-based Major League Soccer club, Colorado Rapids.
Both are slightly handier for travel purposes than other possible replacements based in Britain. Time is now of the essence, with Scotland facing Peru in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The party is scheduled to head out to Lima from London tomorrow. Some players will start the journey from Glasgow today.
“It has been very difficult at this particular time with the end of the season and players playing on injuries in the last few weeks,” said McLeish. “We have made some concessions with (James) McArthur and that kind of thing but the late call-offs were disappointing.”
McArthur, pictured left, is one of several seasoned squad members players granted time off after long, hard campaigns. The manager stressed that, while the news of further calls-offs in the form of Armstrong and Souttar was unwelcome, he understood the difficulties involved.
“I am not blaming the players,” he said. “We have some great players out there and we want them to be ready and available to play for Scotland.”
They will, he hopes, be fresher and fitter for when the competitive fixtures begin in the Autumn. Others, meanwhile, have an opportunity to stake a claim for future participation having contributed to results against Peru and Mexico that will really shake them up.