Is Scotland's mission impossible?

By Keir MurrayBBC Scotland at Hampden

Scotland beat Lithuania at home for the fourth time in European Championship qualification.

They kept a clean sheet, kept the remote possibility of a Euro 2012 play-off place alive and their five midfielders deserve praise for their endeavour.

And yet... Well, I can't bring myself to celebrate. The pain of Saturday's 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic, that other "must-win" match, is too raw.

Having been mugged by the Czechs for that late penalty, Tuesday's match at Hampden felt like hosting a party a few days after having your house burgled.

After all, only 75 hours had passed since Scotland's realistic hopes of finishing second to Spain in Group I had been downgraded to faint.

They were five points adrift of the Czechs before playing this game in hand.

And so, there was a more muted atmosphere than normal at the national stadium.

Jan Rezek's dive to win the last-minute Czech spot-kick had probably wiped 5,000-10,000 off Tuesday's crowd, although many European nations would rejoice still at attracting 34,000 supporters.

But fans aren't daft - don't let the Jimmy wigs fool you - and no amount of pre-match pyrotechnics could fully compensate for the two points dropped so recently, or for the inclement weather, the midweek evening kick-off and the relatively unattractive opposition.

The Scotland team would have to introduce some stylish play to return the Tartan Army to their cheerful selves again, like coochy-cooing a sulking child.

Mercifully, the petted lips retreated and the gloom was pierced when Steven Naismith spun cleverly round the back of his marker to get on the end of the refulgent Barry Bannan's cross.

The Rangers forward should have hit the target with a headed effort in each half but his 50th minute goal was well worked and expertly taken.

And there are other players who give grounds for optimism, even though their talents are not likely to be seen in Poland and Ukraine.

Goalkeeper Allan McGregor looks comfortable at international level, and captain Darren Fletcher, matching Denis Law's record of 55 Scotland caps, led by example in this double-header.

Against Lithuania, Fletcher played between defence and midfield, winning tackles, breaking up opposition moves and spraying passes.

He took responsibility for taking Scotland's penalty when Brann's Tadas Labukas punched Bannan's free-kick clear and kept his composure even after his poor effort had been saved by Zydrunas Karcemarskas.

Suspension and injury respectively deprived Fletcher of Scott Brown's and Charlie Adam's company in the team, but James Morrison and Don Cowie, plus the inventive Bannan, helped Scotland push Lithuania back.

Without Brown's bite in midfield, though, Fletcher's role was deeper than Scotland might have wished for, given his eye for a pass around the box and touch in front of goal - as the Czechs discovered.

As for the visitors in their yellow and green strips, if you screwed up your eyes you might think you were watching Scotland take on Norwich, but that would be doing Paul Lambert's men a disservice.

The Canaries won promotion last season while entertaining their fans: Lithuania offered little in the way of ambition or flair.

Indeed, having seen how the Czechs move the ball about, it is mystifying how they could have lost 1-0 to Lithuania in Olomouc last September, when Karcemarskas saved another spot-kick, this time from Milan Baros.

In October, the Czechs host Spain, who have already qualified, the night before Scotland play in Liechtenstein.

Wins for both travelling teams would mean Scotland go into their final game against Spain in second place, a point ahead of Michal Bilek's Czechs.

If the Czechs were to avenge that defeat by Lithuania by beating Raimondas Zutautas's side away in their final game, the despair would take its grip once more: Scotland would have to beat the world champions on their own patch.

Even that scenario is laced with deadly assumptions, for who would bet against the Czechs snatching a point at home to Spain in their penultimate match?

And the hideous agony of Scotland's 97th-minute Hampden winner to defeat Liechtenstein 2-1 would suggest Scotland cannot assume they will leave the principality with three points.

Any Scot under the age of 20 will have only the vaguest recollection of their national team playing in the finals of a major football tournament. The World Cup in France in 1998 seems a very long time ago.

If Scotland cannot escape Group I, their next chance of hitting the big time is the 2014 World Cup, the draw for which has matched them with Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Wales and Macedonia.

In the Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown eras, Scotland would have had designs on topping the group.

Now it could be argued their best bet is to wait until the European Championship finals expands to 24 teams, for the France 2016 event.

Then, there should be two automatic qualifiers from each group and perhaps play-off places for nations who come third.

I really hope Scotland are not reduced to that.

The players and the manager seem united; they talk enthusiastically of a new era, of team spirit, progress and continuity.

Eight points from six matches, with the narrowest of home wins over Liechtenstein and Lithuania, suggests Levein's project is a work-in-progress.

The fans crave a convincing end product - and soon.

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