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Craig Levein’s tinted outlook won’t get his team to the World Cup
By TOM ENGLISH
A PIG is a pig. No matter how much lipstick you apply, it is still a pig. In the aftermath of this dispiriting experience at Hampden, Craig Levein had the cosmetics out and attempted to apply them liberally when discussing the significance of the day.
How bad a blow was this to Scotland’s World Cup ambitions? Not a blow at all, he said. “Nothing has changed,” said the Scotland manager. “We should have won, played well enough to win, but didn’t win. I’m not going to get overly excited about it. I take confidence from it. There was enough there to be hugely positive about.”
Enough there, apart from, that is, the goal that would have taken the points to set Scotland on their way while inflicting damage on a team that is sure to be a rival in the final shake-down. Nothing has changed? Nonsense. Sheer unadulterated nonsense.
Of course, a man in Levein’s position cannot throw his arms in the air and get emotional about the failure to win a game that Scotland truly needed to win, but neither can he expect the watching masses to buy his line about nothing having changed, or indeed any of the other pieces of spin he attempted to sell.
At one point Levein was asked about the need now for three points against Macedonia on Tuesday evening, Macedonia having done particularly well away from home against Croatia on Friday before losing 1-0. “Yeah, we need to win that game,” said Levein, before checking himself, “unless we don’t [win] and then win every other game in the group.”
Let’s get statistical here. Levein has been in charge now for nine competitive matches and Scotland have won only three of them, two against Liechtenstein and one against Lithuania. Three wins in nine qualifiers is a record that would have had the hounds of hell yelping at some of his predecessors had they returned such dismal figures, but Levein continues to lead something of a charmed life, forever talking things up and forever failing to deliver on his words.
What would failure to win on Tuesday mean, he was asked. “Two points from two? That would be disappointing,” he said. Another word he might have used would have been “fatal” – to Scotland’s World Cup campaign and surely to his own prospects of leading the team much further.
He does not have his problems to seek here. He refused to accept that Scotland are now playing catch-up despite it being a demonstrable fact, but there was no denying that his already stretched resources at the back might be about to get even more stretched. There has to be a modicum of doubt about Alan Hutton’s fitness after he picked up a calf strain. We shall see. None of Danny Fox, Russell Martin and Charlie Mulgrew will be available.
We shall see, also, what transpires in the Steven Naismith affair. The Everton player elbowed Srdan Mijailovic in the head in the first half, an incident that the Serbian management made reference to later. There could yet be some anxiety about Naismith’s availability for Tuesday, but at least midfield is an area where Scotland are not lacking in numbers. Defence is, but there should be a shout-out here to Paul Dixon who made his debut at left-back yesterday and played wonderfully.
Levein carried on applying the lipstick throughout the aftermath. “We didn’t get three points and that’s disappointing. We had opportunities and didn’t take them.” The temptation was to holler Steven Fletcher’s name at that point. Or Jordan Rhodes’s name. The Blackburn striker was given a mere 11 minutes on the field yesterday. “The upside,” continued Levein, “is that we had players who we know can play a lot better.” That’s an upside? Again he was quizzed about the importance of a win on Tuesday. “Certainly, it would be beneficial.” Again, Levein-speak is a little mystifying. Beneficial? He makes it sound like winning would be useful rather than being utterly critical, that the three points would be appreciated rather than being an absolute prerequisite to retaining any hope at all of staying in the race for Rio.
“We’ve moved forward enormously,” he said in terms of the quality of Scotland’s play, the chances they create and the general vibe around the team. “I see a good progression. I’m disappointed but I’m not down. The lads put on a decent show.
“We deserved to win. Even when Serbia had spells I didn’t feel like we were going to lose a goal. The question was whether we could get a goal.” Didn’t feel that Scotland were going to lose a goal? Until, we presume, they almost did through Dusan Tadic. “Would I be frightened to play them [Serbia] again? No, I wouldn’t.”
Neither would Serbia, you have to imagine, be in any fear of facing Scotland. On and on Levein went, presenting an analysis of the day that was at odds with reality. “I was confident before the match and I’m even more confident now,” he said. Quite what he was going on about at that stage was a little hard to follow.
“Nothing has changed,” he insisted. In one sense he is right, but not in the way he means. The results remain the same, the sense of frustration identical, the fighting talk just as tiresome as it has been. We repeat: on Levein’s watch, in games that really matter, his team has only beaten two nations, Liechtenstein and Lithuania. It’s true. Nothing has changed.
Taken from the Scotsman