Scotland: Gordon Strachan seeks winning formula and a few gems

Gordon Strachan and Mark McGhee
Fringe players have the chance to impress manager Gordon Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee
Czech Republic v Scotland
Venue: Generali Arena, Prague Date: Thursday 24 March Kick-off: 19:45
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on BBC Sport website

And so it begins. The lengthy preamble to another international qualifying campaign, when the feverish hopes of a nation desperate to return to the big stage collide with a stark reality in which Scotland remain lengthy outsiders.

Gordon Strachan would have been fully aware of just how difficult the task of getting Scotland to the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018 was going to be when he agreed to prolong his time in the job of national manager.

His decision to do so was welcomed not unanimously, but by a significant portion of the Scottish football family.

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Scotland media conference in Prague: Gordon Strachan and Darren Fletcher

A pragmatic view is that there is no realistic candidate for the role better qualified to turn a squad of jobbing footballers into a team capable of at least making the play-offs.

It had appeared that Strachan had found a way of doing exactly that as qualifying for Euro 2016 began relatively brightly.

But the early promise went unfulfilled as other equally unglamorous nations - the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland among them - managed to emerge successfully from their groups to take their place in France this summer.

The Scotland squad train in Bishopton
The players in the Scotland squads for the two friendlies are vying for places in the World Cup qualifying campaign

Scots can learn from Czechs

In fact, Scotland's opponents on Thursday night were able to top their section without having - as Christophe Berra put it - any world-beaters in their squad, although Petr Cech could put up a strong case for having earned that description.

Nonetheless, Berra's point is a fair one, as was his assertion that Scotland's players as well as Strachan could learn from the Czechs.

The job done by Pavel Vrba in leading them to Euro 2016, ahead of Turkey, Iceland and the Netherlands is mightily impressive, because other than Cech and the ageing Tomas Rosicky, the bulk of this squad is drawn from Europe's lesser leagues - Turkey, Switzerland, the Czech Republic itself and the English Championship.

In that respect, the pool is much like that of the Scots. Just as Vrba has a couple of mainstays playing in the Bundesliga, Strachan can pick from a handful of English Premier League players.

Otherwise, neither squad has a superstar and yet the Czechs' qualifying record suggests they have a very good team.

Czech Republic coach Pavel Vrba
Head coach Pavel Vrba has guided the Czechs to the Euro 2016 finals

Quite how they have achieved this will not become clear over the course of the 90 minutes on Thursday, but their success - and that of Albania, Slovakia, Iceland and others - proves that qualification need not be an impossible dream.

Of course, qualifying for the World Cup will be tougher, with only the group winners making it through automatically.

Strachan's challenge

So Strachan has to quickly rediscover the formula that worked at the outset of Euro 2016 qualifying, in the draw in Warsaw and home wins over Georgia and the Republic of Ireland.

None of those were spectacular, but Scotland ground out results that should have been a solid platform for qualification.

The wheels began to come off in Dublin where Scotland nonetheless came away with a good point. But it appeared a spark had gone, never to be recovered.

Over the course of the next four games - against the Czechs, Denmark and then Italy and France - the challenge for Strachan and his players is to recapture the belief that they can live with these countries and that what Northern Ireland and Wales have done, in ending long waits to return to a major tournament, is not beyond them.

It seems likely the squad that makes the trip to Malta in September will consist largely of the group of players who failed to build on that early promise in Euro qualifying.

But if the manager can identify one or two younger players in these friendly matches to complement those in whom he already has faith, that would be an additional bonus.

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