McLeish calls for 'bottle' in toughest Scotland test yet
The toughest tactical test of Alex McLeish's managerial career awaits this evening when he sends his Scotland side out at Parc des Princes to try to take something – anything – from a French team on the verge of pulling clear in the Group B qualifying race for Euro 2008.
The question is not whether to play defensively; that's a given. Rather it is how to do so while keeping open any Scottish hopes of a scoring. And that is a big ask for any side. France have kept eight clean sheets in their last 10 games and have not conceded since a February friendly with Argentina.
France lead the group on 19 points, one clear of Scotland, who beat them last October at Hampden. Victory for the hosts, who have the easiest run-in, would all but guarantee qualification. Yet the hypothetical chance of an upset could make it a nervy affair for Les Bleus. Should the section end up being decided on head-to-head records, the French fret they may lose out.
That is why their coach Raymond Domenech's assertion that "this match against Scotland is more important than the one against Italy [last weekend]" is not just his latest waffle. He also said that Scotland were the current favourites to top the group. He has genuine concerns that a shock would send France's campaign of hot favouritism into tailspin.
McLeish was asked yesterday whether Scotland's 3-1 win over Lithuania gave his side a comfort zone for tonight. Defeat but three later wins from the remaining games would still guarantee qualification. But continuing with his theme of extended ambition, he said: "I think we now have to get greedy [instead] and meet the challenge of the position we're in [after Saturday]." He also said he will require players with "experience and bottle" tonight.
"We want to be able to try to get up the pitch," he said. "I have to be mindful of that and try to play players who can [comfortably] take the ball and get us up the field. We don't want to be camped in our own 18-yard box the whole game."
McLeish has all but decided to play a 4-4-1-1 formation with a lone striker in Birmingham's Garry O'Connor, who he feels is his most mobile forward, with the Celtic midfield marauder Scott Brown just behind. Barry Ferguson, returning as captain after suspension, will anchor central midfield alongside Darren Fletcher.
It seems the only doubt is whether to start with Celtic's Paul Hartley or James McFadden. If the former plays, he will probably start on the right, with Lee McCulloch on the left. If McFadden comes in – and while he scored a fine goal on Saturday, he often works best as an impact sub – he would play on the left with McCulloch switching flank.
One change is expected in defence, with Burnley's Graham Alexander coming in at left-back in place of Derby's Jay McEveley, for his sheer experience.
McLeish recalled the "buzz" of his own Scotland days, and said he hopes the biggest of stages will now inspire his players. "Whenever I used to go into these arenas in the days of Archie Knox and Alex Ferguson, Archie's line was always, 'If you can't play football in an arena like this...' And it always gave you a bit of a buzz. Those words have stuck in my head. Every time you play in places like these it enhances your education and it is a privilege."
As for a joy, that a point would help.
France (possible, 4-5-1): Landreau (PSG); Diarra (Arsenal), Thuram (Barcelona), Escude (Seville), Abidal (Barcelona); Govou (Lyons), Vieira (Internazionale), Makelele (Chelsea), Ribéry (Bayern Munich), Malouda (Chelsea); Anelka (Bolton).
Scotland (possible, 4-4-1-1): Gordon (Sunderland); Hutton (Rangers), Weir (Rangers), McManus (Celtic), Alexander (Burnley); Hartley (Celtic), Fletcher (Manchester United), Ferguson (Rangers), McCulloch (Rangers); Brown (Celtic); O'Connor (Birmingham).
Referee: K Platz (Austria).