Gordon Strachan has improved the team
14 October ~ Scotland are one of those using this week's final round of Brazil 2014 qualifiers to prepare for Euro 2016. We could still finish bottom of Group A, completing a first ever qualifying campaign without a home win. Yet we're feeling as optimistic as Tuesday's Hampden opposition, a Croatia side guaranteed the play-off place. Scotland's positivity actually derives from short-term thinking, comparing Gordon Strachan's nascent reign to that of the previous manager. There are other sub-plots to this fifth meeting between these countries.
For example, Scotland have never lost in Croatia and are one of only two nations to win a competitive game there. But Scotland fans are selectively censoring our backward glances, lest we lose a fragile sense of forward momentum.
Walter Smith replaced the incompetent Berti Vogts during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and improved performances. This inspired a memorable but ultimately fruitless attempt to reach Euro 2008. Likewise, Craig Levein managed just three competitive wins in three years – his only away victory against Liechtenstein – while Strachan's nine months in charge have reaped victories in Croatia and Macedonia.
Yet, as well as we played against England and Belgium recently, it should give some pause when we're gleaning confidence from two defeats. Strachan's competitive debut, a 2-1 home loss to Wales in March, was even more inept than our 2-1 loss in Cardiff under Levein. It rendered the subsequent two-goal defeat in Serbia something of an achievement. But it was suddenly possible our only points from this group would remain the two Levein garnered from dreadful Hampden draws with Serbia and Macedonia.
Robert Snodgrass's winner against Croatia in June was as surprising as it was hard earned and vitally inspirational. August's loss at Wembley saw sustained, passionate Scottish attacking. Strachan reviewed the match seriously when being asked about the positive aspects of the result. Yet he managed to dismiss it as a shapeless friendly when quizzed on our horrific defending.
In September Belgium won 2-0 at Hampden en route to winning the group. They'd also beaten Levein's team 2-0, on a Brussels night when goalkeeper Allan McGregor performed miracles. In Glasgow Scotland made two mistakes and Strachan focused on the stunning ability of the Belgians and the endeavour from his own side.
Strachan is disingenuous with the media to protect his team. Levein would spout stats and truisms to protect his job. When asked in Skopje how he'd mark his report card Strachan said, "perfect attendance". When asked what the win meant for the future, "everyone's happy on the flight home". His real wit is in keeping supporters realistic while inspiring basic competence on the pitch.
A new midfield holding pair of Celtic's Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew excelled in September's double-header. Barry Bannan, then playing for Aston Villa, was introduced and lauded by Levein after some decent crosses against Lithuania at Hampden. Watford's Ikechi Anya, brought in by Strachan, scored the opener against a Macedonia side he'd run ragged. In Cardiff last year we conceded a late equaliser then lost the game; in Skopje we conceded a late equaliser then scored an even later winner.
Croatia has a smaller population than Scotland yet continually places in the top ten of the FIFA rankings. The first tournaments they were allowed to enter – Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup – were the last ones Scotland qualified for. Croatia went out of Euro 96 at the quarter-final stage and finished third in France two years later. Scotland exited at the group stage of both.
In the 20th century Scotland lost three proper World Cup qualifiers at home.This century we're already losing count. Gordon Strachan is the perfect man for the job right now and the improvement since January is obvious. But he can't rectify a legacy problem which, if we don't reach Euro 2016, will escalate to the historic. It'll now be 18 years since the national team reached a major finals. Scotland should aim to become Croatia – Strachan can only beat them. Alex Anderson