Scotland can be optimistic despite a poor start
Return of Steven Fletcher has boosted morale
10 October ~ Defeat for either side in this Friday's World Cup qualifier between Wales and Scotland would all but end their hopes of making it to Brazil in two years' time. Chris Coleman is at least safe in the knowledge that his position is secure regardless of the result. Not so Craig Levein. After more misplaced optimism at the start of the campaign, serious questions are being asked about Levein's tactical ability – he opted for a rigid and unadventurous 4-5-1 formation during two lacklustre draws at home to Sebia and Macedonia in the opening qualifiers.
His decision to stay faithful to ageing warhorse Kenny Miller instead of risking the free-scoring Jordan Rhodes brought further criticism, particularly after the Macedonia result when many felt the opposition were there for the taking.
This is not the first time that Levein has come under fire for such a negative approach. His "revolutionary" 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic may have pre-dated Spain's Euro 2012-winning side by a couple of years but they couldn't have been more different in purpose. The Scotland boss set out to avoid defeat rather than win the game and ultimately cost his side the chance of qualifying for last summer's tournament. It was a moment that many are unlikely to forget.
However, just when it looked like history was about to repeat itself, Levein has been granted a reprieve. Favourable results elsewhere have kept Scotland in touch with the group leaders and, with Wales then Belgium on the horizon and goals thin on the ground, further salvation may lie in an unlikely source. A thaw in relations with Steven Fletcher has seen him recalled to the squad for the first time since February 2011 and Levein is clearly hoping that the Sunderland striker will bring his impressive club form to the international stage.
The mood in the Scottish camp is now slightly more upbeat and positive than it probably should be. Levein has gone out of his way to prove to his doubters that he is open to change and the presence of Fletcher seems to have given the squad an unexpected yet welcome lift.
The return of captain Darren Fletcher to central midfield has further raised fan expectations, although this has been slightly tempered by the loss of Rhodes and Robert Snodgrass through injury. Yet such restraint is no bad thing. Cautious optimism usually serves the Tartan Army well, especially when the team seemingly have their backs against the wall. Neil Andrews