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Craig Levein insists he sees ‘evidence of progress’
PERHAPS Craig Levein was seeking inspiration when he chose the Celtic Manor resort on the outskirts of Newport as Scotland’s base over the next few days as their World Cup qualifying campaign enters a critical phase.
At the luxurious scene of Colin Montgomerie’s finest hour, when he led Europe to Ryder Cup glory two years ago, Levein and his squad will fine tune their strategy for tonight’s match against Wales in Cardiff before flying out to Brussels on Monday for the showdown with Belgium the following evening.
If Montgomerie’s fruitless search for an individual major was compensated for by his glory as European captain, however, only leading his country to a first major tournament finals since 1998 will be good enough for Levein to be regarded as a success in his current job.
His consistent insistence that Scotland have made significant progress on his watch since he replaced George Burley almost three years ago appeared hollow to most observers last month when four points were spilled instantly in the opening two Group A games at home to Serbia and Macedonia.
But Levein will not be budged from his own vision of how his team has developed, his sense of self-certainty over the effectiveness of his work buoyed even further this week by the strengthening of his resources through the return of Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Steven Fletcher.
“People keep saying they can’t see the evidence but I can see the evidence,” said Levein. “But what I will not do is be derailed because other people are getting anxious.
“I keep coming back to it, I don’t think we played well in the Macedonia game. But I thought the Serbia game was a decent enough result. On that day we more than matched them, could have won but didn’t. That’s football.
“There was no indication for me in that performance that there was anything wrong. The second game I was disappointed in. It’s important for us to improve on that last performance, but I’m certain we will.
“We are trying to improve things. We have a better chance now of winning games. And what gives me greater encouragement is that I look at players in the squad this time and in my opinion we have a better chance of winning games with them, than without them.
“Momentum comes in small steps. You don’t go from 0-100 in one second. It takes time but what we have now is a way of playing. We have been trying to perfect that. Sometimes the performances have been excellent, but unlike a club, it takes time but we are heading in the right direction.
“I’m greatly encouraged by getting two experienced players back in an area of the field we were really toiling in, defensive midfield. So getting Fletch and Broony back, and also to an extent James McArthur as well, we suddenly go from being in a desperate situation in that boiler house of the field to looking pretty rosy.”
Scotland have not won in Cardiff since May 1983, when goals from Andy Gray and Alan Brazil earned a 2-0 success at the old Ninian Park. But the time has never appeared more ripe to end that long barren run.
Wales are without several key players and Chris Coleman goes into tonight seeking to avoid becoming the first manager in his country’s football history to lose his first five games in charge. The home side have scored just one goal in 2012, in the crushing 6-1 defeat to Serbia last month, but Levein remains wary of the threat they could pose this evening.
“Who knows how they will react?,” he said. “You look back through history and some teams respond in a positive way to prove it was a one-off. Other times, there is some psychological damage there.
“They have played some good teams recently. They actually played well against Belgium but had a man sent off after about 30 minutes. So it’s tough to compete against Belgium with 10 men. They have had some tough matches.
“There is a case for saying if we can get in front in the game it might help soften them up. But international football doesn’t always follow the same rules as club football. In club football, you get a quick chance to get back on the bike once you’ve fallen off. In international football, there is always that period of reflection which is unwanted at times. I couldn’t tell you what damage has been done to the Welsh team, or if they will come out fighting. We won’t know that until tomorrow.
“I always thought when Wales came out of the hat, it was one to look forward to. There is the extra added spice of it being a home international.
Whether I would have wanted a team from the bottom pot of seeds as strong as Wales – probably not. But I am looking forward to the game.”
Alan Hutton looks set to start at right-back for Scotland, despite having played no competitive first team football for Aston Villa this season. But Levein has no concerns over Hutton and does not expect his match sharpness to be tested by Wales’ most dangerous and renowned current player, Gareth Bale.
“Bale doesn’t play on that side of the park for Wales, he plays on the right,” said Levein. “But the question about Alan is valid. If he was a young boy and had not played in a lot of big matches, it would be a bigger concern.”
Taken from the Scotsman