Thursday, 11 October 2012

Crunch Time For Levein

The next week sees the next block of matches on the road to World Cup 2014.  While England can count on 3 points with an easy win over San Marino, Ireland face a huge match in Germany.  The most intriguing fixture sees Scotland play Wales in a competitive match for the first time since the famous 1-1 draw at Ninian Park that saw Scotland reach the play-offs in their attempt to reach Mexico ’86.  The draw was immediately overshadowed by the death of the Scotland manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack just before the end of the match.

Dalgleish scores during Scotland's last World Cup win V Wales, October 1977
Prior to that campaign, Scotland had fond memories against Wales.  One of Scotland’s most famous qualifiying ties was a 2-0 win against Wales in October 1977 (right) – a tie that the Welsh FA chose in their wisdom to play at Anfield.  The tie was nip and tuck until with 12 minutes to go, a penalty was awarded against Wales when the ball was adjudged to have been punched by the Welsh defender David Jones (it was Joe Jordan who had punched the ball).  Masson (who at that point had a very good record in converting penalties) scored.  With five minutes to go a Buchan cross found Dalgleish who headed home to send Scotland into the World Cup finals – prompting the famous piece of commentary from Arthur Montford - “Argentina… here we come…

Wales managed to get some sort of revenge during the qualifying rounds for Mexico 1986.  In March 1985, they became the second team (the first in twenty years) to win a world cup match at Hampden, Ian Rush’s goal just before half time checked Scotland’s progress in this tournament after two early home wins against Iceland & Spain.  By the time that return match came around a draw would have seen Scotland into a play-off (on goal difference), a win would have seen Scotland with a chance of direct qualification depending on the result of Spain’s last match (a home game with Iceland).

Scotland fell behind very early on to a Mark Hughes goal, but managed to equalise with another penalty, taken by Davie Cooper.  At the final whistle, any joy was muted as the players suspected that something had happened.

Since that tie, Scotland has faced Wales in frendlies only.  Yet, Wales have developed a reputation of being the team that end’s the tenor of Scotland managers.  This first emerged when Scotland faced Wales at the Millenium Stadium in early 2004.  Both sides had lost out in the playoffs for Euro 2004, but Wales hammered Scotland 4-0.  From that point Berti Vogts time as Scotland manager was all but up.  Levein himself will be aware of this, especially as his predecessor George Burley also saw himself disposed of after a defeat in Wales, this time the SFA waited only 48 hours after a 3-0 loss at Friday’s venue – The Cardiff City Stadium – to sever Burley’s time as Scotland manager.

The start that Scotland have made in this group – 2 home draws – has put the pressure on Levein to pick up at least four points from the two away games against Wales and Belgium (which follows next Tuesday).  The Wales tie will be the easier of the two, but that is not to underestimate this side despite the fact that they have lost in their two outings in this group so far (2-1 at home to Belgium and 6-1 away in Serbia) and that they will be missing Craig Bellamy for this double header.  Wales midfield is their best part of the team, with Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsay playing alongside Liverpool’s summer signing Joe Allen, while they can also call on Tottenham’s Gareth Bale on the left.  There are also familiar faces there in the shape of Celtic’s Adam Matthews and Joe Ledley, while Aberdeen’s Jason Brown is also in this squad.

In sharp contrast to last time out, Levein’s squad has the feel of returning faces – with the exception of the banned Stephen Naismith.  Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher both return, with Brown seemingly only fit for one of the games.  Whichever match Brown plays, both will add a grip to the Scotland midfield that was sorely missing in the previous two matches – assuming of course that Levein plays with three central midfielders.  Also returning is Sunderland’s £12 million striker Stephen Fletcher.

Fletcher had fallen out with Levein at the start of the Nation’s Cup matches last spring.  However it has taken until Scotland’s flat performances against Serbia and Macedonia last month for both sides to thrash out their differences.  With Rhodes out injured, Fletcher’s chances of playing look good – depending on Levein’s decision on Miller of course.  As I have pointed out previously, the key to Levein getting desirable results out of these two games depends on whether he sticks with his 4-1-4-1 formation.  The inclusion of Commons even gives Levein the option of going into both games with a genuine winger.

Scotland needs at least 4 points from this double header to pull themselves back into the pack.  3 points from Wales is an absolute must, while a point is needed from this group’s form side Belgium.  The problem is that anything other than 3 points on Friday means that Scotland will be all but out after 3 games.

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