Tom English: Did Croatia really expect a big win?

FOR the longest time, the Scottish national football team have had to survive on scraps in an attempt to feed confidence. Scraps such as the news during the week that Gordon Strachan’s team had moved up four places to 74th in the FIFA world rankings.

Robert Snodgrass clashes with Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa on his way to giving Scotland the lead. Picture: SNS

A mere morsel of optimism when you consider that they are still considered inferior to Libya, Equatorial Guinea and Haiti. On Friday night in Zagreb, the narrative changed, though. Finally, there was something to feast on, something of substance that sparked amazement, delight and relief, probably in equal measure.

Scotland found some things that they’ve spent a relative age looking for. Namely, a dominant centre-half in Russell Martin, a controlled belligerence as typified by all the players, and concentration levels that surpassed anything we have seen since James McFadden launched a shot into the Paris night six years ago.

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What happened in Zagreb will do nothing for Scotland’s fate in this qualification campaign but at least it arrests the apparently terminal decline of the national team, the unrelenting gloom that surrounded it, the feeling that we could all grow ancient waiting for this group of players to do something that will offer hope of better things ahead.

Gordon Strachan knows full well that it’s only one night and one win, but it’s a solid foundation to build on, where before there was only quicksand. Strachan can draw on it in the future. He can say: “Remember Zagreb and what happens when you focus properly and follow instructions.”

For the manager, it’s an enormous confidence booster, not just for his players but for himself, too. He needed this victory as much as anybody. Strachan was beginning to look hang-dog. He was beginning to come across as a man who had taken on what he thought was a difficult job only to find that it was an impossible one. Friday broke the monotony of misery. Praise be.

Fear, when channelled correctly, can be a good thing in football. Fear focuses the mind and stiffens the resolve, it makes you imagine the worst-case scenario and makes you work like a dog to make sure it doesn’t happen. When Scotland played Croatia they would have taken the field with fear inside them, whether they admit it publicly or not. Fear that the team ranked fourth in the world and with a track record to die for on their home patch could inflict an unmerciful hiding on them.

To their credit, they turned that doomsday scenario that so many of us had worried about into a positive. They chased and harried and survived. They showed a level of awareness that was lacking before. Fear is the enemy of complacency and arrogance. Scotland should feel fear more often. The spirit of the underdog demands it sometimes.

The build-up to Friday night was interesting in that the story of the preamble featured the supercilious Croats talking down the Scots while attempting to figure out by how many goals they were going to thrash Strachan’s team.

The dynamic was a reminder of a player of this column’s acquaintance who was a master of the mind game, who played for a team at the highest level and spent much of his career looking for things to rail against. He used to scour the newspapers in the build-up to big games searching manically for slights from the press or, ideally, the opposition and, when he didn’t find any, he simply made them up. He’d go storming into training to tell his team-mates of some verbal atrocity committed by the other side that would make their blood boil.

“Lads, do you know what they’re saying about us?!” Then he’d write it on the wall. Imaginary quotes from an unknowing opponent that turned his team-mates into vengeful warriors. The thing about it was this: Most of his team-mates knew what he was doing, but they went along with it anyway because it suited them, because it helped them to think that their opposite numbers didn’t rate them and were bad-mouthing them at every turn. My pal would go into print. “None of the boys appreciate being written off. The stuff coming out of their camp is arrogant and disrespectful and we’re bloody angry about it.” Thus the narrative of the week would be set.

There is no doubt that Scotland went out to play Croatia on Friday night stung by their opponents’ supposed egotism. All week there’d been stuff about their apparent dismissal of the Scots and, unquestionably, it hit home with Strachan’s players, some of whom spoke about it in the aftermath.

Was it real or were these put-downs trumped up? There was a hullabaloo created because the Croats had gone for beers last weekend, an event that was interpreted as an insult to Scotland. Whatever. There was a quote from Igor Stimac, the Croatia manager, that had him stating that Scotland would not cross the halfway line. There was another quote from striker Ivica Olic which predicted a three-goal victory for Croatia. Somebody else close to the Croatian camp predicted a five-goal romp. This was great fodder in the preamble but how much of it was true?

If you look through the quotes, Scotland were love-bombed by the Croats for much of the week.

Josip Simunic: “I have heard from many people that the Scotland team is not strong, that they are not good and are the weakest team in the group. We have to be very careful of this. They are not poor and, if we allow them to impose their style of play, we will have problems. We will win in this match only if we are 100 per cent concentrated on the job.”

Darijo Srna: “Caution, caution, caution. That’s what we should bear in mind at all times ahead of this game.”

Eduardo: “Scottish players never give up, their fighting spirit is fascinating and they’re powerful in the air. People are expecting us to thrash Scotland. That kind of attitude is wrong.”

Nikica Jelavic said in a Croatian newspaper: “The Scots are last in the group but we cannot underestimate them or take them lightly. We will be missing a few players, but we have to be focused and be at our maximum.”

Stimac’s quote about Scotland not crossing the line seems to have been out of respect rather than over-confidence. He spoke of the danger of playing the Scots and said: “I want us to press Scotland right from the start and put them under pressure. We don’t want to allow them to get the ball out of their own half.”

As for the beers last weekend, it was last weekend!

It suited Scotland to believe that they were put down, of course. That helped on the night, regardless of whether they were actually the subject of Croatian insults or not.

The rest was up to them, though. Croatia didn’t perform as they can but to put it all down to a condescending attitude and a wrong mindset would belittle what Scotland did in hassling them, in wrecking their heads with their commitment and their refusal to buckle, as they have done so often in the past.

Scotland knew that, if they didn’t get it right, Croatia were good enough to destroy them.

Mentally, Scotland were as solid as we have seen in years, with Martin at the heart of the resistance.

Nobody is talking of a bright new dawn, but at last there is some light to go with all that dirty grey.