THE gulf between hope and expectation may be brutally exposed to Gordon Strachan over the coming days.
The Scotland manager naturally wants his players to win both their friendly matches in Malta tonight and in Metz on Saturday but knows that, in first Italy and then France, they are facing two of the strongest line-ups in world football. Strachan is not daft enough to rashly predict a victory for the Scots in either game but will set his team out with that intention, even if halting two sides fine-tuning their preparations for the forthcoming European Championships will be an almighty task.
“What am I hoping for? To win. That would be great. We know it’ll be hard, though. I was handed the France and Italy squad lists and I thought “woah!” We need to play at our best, that's for sure. All we can do is put a shape together and say “be brave out there”. Brave's not running about barging into people, it's being brave on the ball, showing for it, no dismissing the ball, keeping it, beating people when you think you should just be kicking it away.”
Strachan has again freshened up his squad from the recent double-header against the Czech Republic and Denmark – bringing in the likes of Barrie McKay and Callum Paterson – but again found himself lamenting the fact that he still cannot draw from the highest echelons of the game. Of this group, that does not include the majority of the usual Celtic players, only one – Charlie Mulgrew – has played in Europe this season, while Norwich City’s relegation means his coterie of English Premier League players has also been reduced a notch.
It seems a curious strategy to continue to highlight something that neither he nor the players can unduly influence but it evidently grates on Strachan that he must continue to deploy the football equivalent of taking a knife to a gunfight. It does, however, perhaps serve his cause to dampen the expectations of a perennially optimistic Tartan Army.
“[Wanting a break at this time of year] is not the mindset of a top player and the quicker we get out of it the better,” he said. “But to get out of it we need to get more teams into Europe, be more successful, do well at international level and get players into the Champions League, even if it's not with Scottish clubs.
"I'd love to see more of our players playing at the top level abroad, in the top leagues. If you look at the squad I picked for this game, only four play in the Premier League now because Norwich got relegated. You also had Steven Fletcher at Marseille and that's it. The rest play somewhere else. Most of the Italy and France players play in the Champions League or have done at some stage.
“We’ve not got many coming through at centre back or a striker scoring at the top level: in the Champions League, that is what you are looking for. We are doing okay in the middle of the park, yeah, there is some good stuff there. We are okay in that that kind of area.”
To try to kickstart the process, Strachan wants to hurry things along. It is why the likes of Oliver Burke and Kieran Tierney have been fast-tracked into the A squad in recent times without a prior stint in the under-21s, and the message is that more will be given a similar chance if they can prove they are worthy.
“We are not here to produce teams at under-13 or under-15 level, we are here to produce players. There is a big difference. We promote them as soon as they are good enough. If you are 13 and can play against 15 year-olds then, great, on you go. You learn how to look after yourself, you get core strength, you get quicker. The same with Ollie Burke – why should we wait until he goes through under-19s and under-21s? He is big enough and strong enough so, bang, there you go. That is what we have to do. We can’t go through the man-made system which insists every group gets a look at them. Let’s find out about you now.
“Get them through, don’t hold them back with the pack. If they are stronger than the pack then let them go. Look at countries around the world. They are playing them at 18. We still think 21, 22 and 23 is young. It’s not. So let’s find out how good they are.”
Italy v Scotland - Premier Sports TV Tonite 1945