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Abuse of Craig Levein will only end with the sack, or Rio qualification

Michael Grant
Chief football writer

MERCIFULLY for Craig Levein it tends to be only prime ministers and presidents who are subjected to formal "approval ratings", not Scotland managers.

If there was any sort of device to measure his popularity right now the needle would barely flicker above zero. There has been a dislike of Levein among a sizeable section of supporters almost since the day he took over, and things are deteriorating. As the Serbia game wore on it was impossible to be at Hampden without feeling a hardening of the mood. This could all get quite nasty.

He isn't short of problems and one of them is the whole idea of Brazil. A World Cup there is the ultimate fantasy of international football. Scotland supporters long to qualify more than they have for any tournament since, arguably, the European Championship was held in England. It was unthinkable for Scotland to miss Euro 96 and it is unthinkable (yet also quite likely) that the 2014 World Cup will be missed too. Fans yearn to be in on the Rio party and they see a group of players who ought to be capable of mounting a major campaign to get them there. Levein is going to face real anger if it doesn't look like that will happen, and there will be a clamour to get him out quickly if Scotland stumble again tomorrow night. The case for instant action would be based on the argument that a new man might be rushed in and still be able to turn around the campaign, while there's a chance.

On messageboards, Twitter and radio or newspaper phone-ins the abuse of Levein is vicious. He isn't usually accused of being shambolic or disorganised in the way Berti Vogts and George Burley were, but there is wave after wave of resentment about his cautious tactics and perceived pig-headed refusal to change. As usual, when a guy comes to be regarded as fair game, it can get deeply personal. Everything from his beard to his sunglasses and occasional baseball cap have been held against him. It's almost at the point where anything goes.

Levein is a good man. He is funny, intelligent and helpful. These qualities make him a pretty popular figure with the media, which in turn stands accused of being far too soft on him. Whether on or off the record he can give quite plausible and reasoned explanations for his decision-making, be it over Steven Fletcher, no strikers in Prague or persisting with one up-front. Having said all of that, on Saturday night it was impossible to share his upbeat assessment of Scotland's prospects after the instant spilling of points against Serbia. The assertion that "nothing has changed" was, of course, ludicrous.

The inclination to feel deeply pessimistic about this qualifying series after only 90 minutes' football is based on bitter experience. Seven consecutive campaigns have fallen because of results like Saturday's. They get explained away and excused at the time but always prove to be ruinous in the end.

Scotland aren't Spain. The best teams in the world can tolerate dropping a couple of points at home because they can make amends by winning any and all subsequent fixtures in a group. Scotland don't win the "big", campaign-changing matches. On the opening evidence the two best teams in Group A are Croatia and Belgium, which means Scotland have already dropped points at home to one of the probable also-rans. This campaign had to be built on maximum points at Hampden in order to create leeway for some tolerable setbacks later, such as spilling two or three points in Zagreb or Brussels.

This must be said yet again: Levein's frequent claim of major progress is not reflected in results or even performances. It often seems as though his measure of Scotland's improvement is how much more professional and committed the squad is compared to how things were when he took over at the start of 2010. That's all fine, and welcome, but there has been no discernible improvement in the competitive results. Scotland have won only three of the past nine qualifiers. Saturday's display was poorer than the last qualifier under Burley, when Holland won with a late goal at Hampden but only after Scotland had played with real verve and threat. A pertinent comparison can be made with the home qualifier against Ukraine in 2007, which Scotland won 3-1. It was that team's sixth consecutive victory.

Levein would have you believe the current group is capable of something like that, but where is the evidence? There was no exceptional result in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and Saturday's goalless home draw was a dispiriting continuation of the trend.

Substitutions ought to have been made sooner on Saturday but the real issue with the manager was neither that nor the ongoing use of a 4-1-4-1 formation. It was that for all the praise and compliments he lavishes on his players too many of them – Charlie Adam, James Morrison, Kenny Miller, Steven Naismith – did not respond to him with good enough performances.

There is a real gulf between Levein and most supporters. He's aware of that, and he also knows he won't be forgiven if Macedonia take anything tomorrow night.

Taken from the Herald

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