Thursday, 2 September 2010

If It’s Lithuania, It Must Be The Euro’s Again

Dailly's score's V Lithuania, September 2006
12 years ago Scotland started a Euro 2000 campaign that would end in heartbreak at Wembley with a 0-0 draw in Villnius, a game that saw Neil McCann & Barry Ferguson make their debuts, 4 and a half years later, a 1-0 loss in Lithuania nearly derailed Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Portugal (losing 6-0 in Amsterdam eventually did that), while four years ago Scotland’s 2-1 win made it two wins out of two going into their crunch clash with World Cup finalists France (before losing out, by that most Scottish of means, with a loss away in Georgia).  On Friday, Scotland are again in Lithuania, this time in Kaunas, for European Championship qualification duty.  All that will be missing will be the rendition of “I’ve Got You Babe”.

The background for this game couldn’t be more difficult for Scottish football.  Last week saw a series of results which together were a disaster.  Celtic were particularly culpable in surrendering a two goal lead by crashing to a 4-2 aggregate loss to Utrecht.  That is the equivalent of going to somewhere like Paisley and losing…  no wait they did that last season.  Celtic are now clearly a side in transition, Lennon will need to be afforded time to see if he can get things pulling in the right direction.  Motherwell’s fate was also frustrating, and alongside Dundee United’s fate, symptomatic of the general lack of exposure to the higher levels of the game.  Both sides lacked experience (Motherwell have got thus far with experience in the dug-out, they could have done with some experience on the pitch on Thursday).  All of which leaves Rangers alone in Europe struggling to keep the Scottish co-efficient afloat, a task not really helped by their European Cup draw.

For Scottish football, it will be key that the national team get off to a good start, starting with Lithuania.  For the double header (Scotland play Liechtenstein four days later at Hampden), Craig Levin has re-called David Weir, Lee McCulloch & Paul Hartley.  Should Weir play, he will be the oldest outfield player ever to have been capped by Scotland.  Making up a triumvirate of returning defenders for Scotland will be Andy Webster.  With Gordon still missing with injury, and a shaky defensive display against Sweden last month, the return of Weir, McCulloch & Webster will provide needed stability at the back.  I would also like to see Scotland start with a 3 man centre midfield (either playing 3-5-2 or 4-5-1, maybe evolving to a 4-3-2-1 as the game goes on).

Lithuania will be familiar bedfellows in more ways than one, no fewer than 9 of the Lithuania squad have plied their trade in Scottish football at one time or another. Zaliukas is still with Hearts, Velicka has joined Aberdeen on loan from Rangers this week, while Saulius Mikoliunas (he of the subtle dive during the last meeting, at Hampden in September 2007) is also in the squad.  His motivation will clearly be that the dive made him the most hated player in Scottish Football for a short period, with the media fallout forcing him from Hearts.

A win on Friday really is vital for Scotland to have a chance of qualification for Euro 2010.  After Liechtenstein on Tuesday, Scotland will be away to the Czech Republic before the arrival of the Defending champions, and new World Cup winners Spain.  Maximum points from the first quarter of the qualifying programme would provide Scottish Football with a much needed shot in the arm.

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