Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Wed 12 August 2009

Norway v Scotland Preview (or 'The art of self-destruction')

Written by Seb Gevers

When George Burley took over at the helm of the Scottish national side, he knew the scale of the task ahead of him. He knew, because history tells its own story. Scotland, a team forever on the edge of qualification. Scotland, a team forever on the edge of the next round. Scotland, a team that somehow always contrives to mess it up at the final hurdle.

Last October at Hampden, against Norway coincedentally enough, we saw another example of Scotland in full self-destruct mode.

That game, you might remember, was memorable for several occasions. For one, there was Chris Iwelumo missing an absolute sitter from 5 yards out that your granny could have scored. The Wolves striker, making his debut, found himself in front of goal at the end of a Stephen Naysmith cross. Needing only the gentlest of tap-ins, he made contact with the ball but managed to put it wide of the post from close range.

The other notable event from that game is what followed after the events on the pitch. Or rather, what didn’t, according to Kris Boyd. The Rangers striker, at the time leading scorer in Scotland, frustrated at manager George Burley’s reluctance to play him ahead of Iwelumo, announced his resignation from the national side – while Burley was in charge at least anyway.

Whether or not Boyd would have played the next game against the Dutch is moot, for the end result, a 3-0 defeat, was never in doubt. Kenny Miller, looking lively in the opening exchanges and playing all alone up front in a 4-5-1 missed an early chance that perhaps a more in-form striker, like Boyd for example, might have put away.

But again, Scotland’s ability to push the self-destruct button needed only a few hours after the final whistle to make its appearance.

Following the side’s return to their Loch Lomond training base, several players, including Scott Brown, Alan Hutton, Gary Teale and Rangers trio Steven Whitttaker, Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson indulged in an apparently sanctioned after-hours drinking session. When this drinking carried on into the early hours, and with guests arriving for breakfast and the players still at the bar, the Scotland management was informed: McGregor and Ferguson where caught propping up the bar, having run up a four-figure bar tab at the Cameron House leisure club, their drinking compatriots having made a dash for the exists when the raid came.

Although the pair eventually apologised for the drinking affair, matters took a turn for the worse when both players where seen to stick up two fingers – the classic ‘V’ sign – at photographers who had assembled around the pair during Scotland’s next game against Iceland. Both had been benched as part of their punishment following the Cameron house incident, but this act of sheer lunacy prompted the SFA to hand out life-bans to both players, meaning that they would not be eligible for selection again for future Scotland internationals, and their club, Rangers, to drop them for the rest of the season (and remember that at this stage, Rangers where still trailing Celtic by three points in the league). Worse for Ferguson was to follow when he was also stripped of the captaincy in favour of veteran defender David Weir.

Since the whole Iceland affair, thing have been quiet around the Scotland camp. There’s been no scandals, no gossip and no dressing room bust-ups. Barry Fergusson has left Scotland for other pastures blue at Birmingham, while Allan McGregor is still fighting to regain his Rangers and Scotland place – David Marshall will take his place between the sticks while Craig Gordon continues to recover from injury.

Tomorrow night, Burley and his merry men travel north to Oslo for another make-or-break tie against a side that, for once, we actually have a good record against. In the ten fixtures that have taken place against Norway – games stretching back to 1978 – Scotland have recorded more victories (4), or, to put it better, only 1 defeat, that coming via a Steffen Iversen’s penalty in 2004 that left Scotland with one point from two games.

With runaway group winners The Netherlands not playing until 9th September (against Scotland no less), it’s up to the remaining teams in the group to play catch-up and fight it out for that coveted second place, and a chance of qualifying for the World Cup as one of the eight best placed group runners-up.

While Scotland find themselves in pole position (for second place anyway), Norway currently lie bottom of the group on three points. They’ve not won a game so far, but have managed to draw 3 of their five games, suggesting perhaps that getting three points may well be a harder task than you might think. So far the Norwegians have lost both their games against The Netherlands and have drawn with Iceland, Macedonia and of course Scotland.

It’s a game that must be won by both sides. Scotland need a win to keep up the fight for that second place. A victory tomorrow would end Norway’s already fading hopes of qualification and set up the Scots for their next crucial game against Macedonia at Hampden, knowing that a win there would all but guarantee second-spot in the group, regardless of the outcome of their final group game against the Dutch at the end of September.

But this is Scotland we’re talking about of course.

A second place finish is all well and good, but our qualification then depends on the fortunes of others, like it did in 1974, when, despite not losing a single of our group games, we needed results elsewhere for us to progress. Back then it needed Zaire to hold off Brazil (they didn’t of course, the Brazilians going through on goal difference), while this year it’s down to Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Auld Enemy, England to give the Scots a chance.

Scotland are currently 8th in the ranking of second placed teams, 2 points ahead of nearest rivals, Group 6 chasers Croatia. The Croatians, who still have a fixture against England to come, and with England starting to blossom under Fabio Capello, it will be down to fellow Group sides Belarus and Kazakhstan to help us out. The omens don’t look good however – both Belarus and Kazakhstan are desperate sides, and should not provide much competition for the Croatians who also have the Ukraine, level on points, breathing down their necks.

For Burley and the boys, the most important result tomorrow is the one that sees them pick up possibly three of the most important points of their campaign, and for Burley only the second time in his 19 month stay as Scotland manager. It’ll be a tough game, but in terms of history in this particular fixture, Scotland have the upper hand. It’s just a shame that once again we’ll need a bit of luck from elsewhere to push us over the finishing line.

And when it comes down to luck, that’s where Scotland always seem to fail.

Scotland, from: Marshall; Hutton, G Caldwell, S Caldwell, Whittaker; Brown, Hartley, D Fletcher; McFadden, Miller, McCormack. Subs Marshall, Langfield, Barr, Berra, Davidson, Maloney, McAllister, G Alexander, Commons, Clarkson, S Fletcher, Naismith.

Venue: Ullevaal Stadion, Oslo Date: Wed, 12 August Kick-off: 1800 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two, BBC Radio Scotland, Radio 5 live and BBC Sport website.

For more great writing from Seb, visit insideleft.net...

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