Cracks show in Burley's logic after Scotland's stumbling start
Published 08/09/2008 | 12:10
And on the bright side, Scotland have lost the opening game of a World Cup campaign before and still reached the finals. That was in the race for places at the 1978 junta-fest in Argentina. Their opening qualifier ended in a 2-0 defeat in Czechoslovakia but Ally MacLeod's men still managed to top their section and progress.
Clutching at straws? Well, yes. The group in those halcyon days had all of three teams. Wales were the other one. Scotland won three of four games to go through. They will require considerably more than that to have a prayer of escaping Group Nine to reach South Africa, starting with a win on Wednesday in Iceland.
Not that there is any reason to think that will be easy. Iceland, supposedly the rank outsiders in the section, drew 2-2 in Norway on Saturday. Scotland's manager, George Burley, argued before a ball had been kicked in anger that the Netherlands will almost certainly top this section but that anyone else – Scotland, Macedonia, Norway or Iceland – might finish second. He is right. A scramble awaits, and a long and fraught one it will be, to judge by the weekend.
It was awash with sideshows. Up to 2,000 of the Tartan Army were locked out after buying tickets from locals. Yet there were lots of empty seats.
The biggest threat of trouble came from a hard core of home fans, quelled by riot police as they removed a giant banner depicting a local "ultra" icon, Johan Tarculovski, a war criminal convicted last month in The Hague.
The kick-off time was a hot topic. After sweltering in 90-plus degrees, both managers said they would rather have played in the evening. Why did that not happen? Because television, principally Setanta, dictated to the host FA via the chequebook that the game should be in the afternoon.
Yet Scotland's display itself was wrapped in contradictions. The heat was a huge problem, according to Burley and some of his players. No it wasn't, said his captain, Stephen McManus.
Burley asserted last week that his ethos is rooted not in systems but in players. And yet late on Saturday night, musing while waiting for his bag at the luggage carousel in Glasgow airport, he said: "You've got to keep working with your squad – trying to get the best system, the best attacking system."
But he contradicted himself again when talking about the major assets in his squad. "I thought we had our best players out there," he said. "Kris Commons did well. Shaun Maloney looked lively." But they were both substitutes, sent into the fray late to add width that had been crucially lacking for most of the piece. If Burley really had his "best players out there", why were they not on from the start?
To be fair to him, there were few fans or commentators who would have picked a different starting XI to the one Burley chose. But then it is Burley's job to do the right thing, not necessarily the obvious thing. And beginning the game with four players who usually all operate in central midfield strung across the park as a central quartet was going to be risky if one or more played below par.
In fact, Scott Brown, Paul Hartley, Darren Fletcher and Barry Robson all underachieved in one of the most dire first halves the Tartan Army have had to endure for a long time. That meant poor service for James McFadden and Kenny Miller ahead of them. And in the absence of the injured Alan Hutton, a hugely progressive influence at right-back in the thrilling if unsuccessful Euro 2008 campaign, the defenders were never going to supply spark.
The back four were culpable too when Macedonia's Ilco Naumoski was allowed to steal in unmarked to score after Craig Gordon had pushed Goce Sedloski's free-kick onto the post. They improved: Gary Caldwell and McManus blocked several efforts, and Gordon made two spectacular second-half saves.
But the damage was already done. McFadden, Brown and Maloney had non-venomous shots stopped. McFadden was denied a penalty, but then so were Macedonia. And that was about that.
Burley is clearly feeling the pressure. He was asked about the stark statistic of no wins from four games in charge and he avoided a straight answer. "I think we're looking for the World Cup [place]," he said. "Today was a tester for us. We never got to grips with it in the first half."
Changes will be needed, and quickly. The first will be the late drafting of Hibernian's 21-year-old striker Steven Fletcher. Burley insists 17 points remains his target. Five wins and two draws from seven games. Stranger things have happened. But not many.
FYR Macedonia (3-4-3): Milosevski; Sedloski, Mitreski, Noveski; Lazarevski, Petrov (Grncarov, 78), Grozdanovski, Sumulikoski; Naumoski (Trajanov, 69), Pandev (Tasevski, 82), Maznov.
Scotland (4-4-1-1): Gordon (Sunderland); Alexander (Burnley), McManus, Caldwell (both Celtic), Naysmith (Sheff Utd); Brown (Celtic), Fletcher (Man Utd), Hartley (Celtic), Robson (Celtic); McFadden (Birmingham); Miller (Rangers). Subsitutes used: Commons (Derby) for Hartley, 65; Maloney (Celtic) for Robson, 76); Boyd (Rangers) for Miller, 80.
Referee: P Kralovec (Czech Republic).
Booked: Macedonia Naumoski, Sumulikoski, Pandev. Scotland McFadden.
Man of the match: Naumoski.