Cautious Craig Levein edges forward with Scotland

By Alasdair LamontBBC Scotland
Scotland manager Craig Levein
A win and game time for fringe players were the positives for Levein in Cyprus

So the road to Brazil 2014 has begun, with a decent, if unspectacular, 2-1 victory over an experimental Cyprus side.

The question is whether anything emerged from the game - and the five-day trip as a whole - that suggests Scotland are close to being equipped to make the next qualifying campaign a successful one.

For Craig Levein, the answer is undoubtedly yes. The Scotland manager is adept at pointing to the positive aspects of any performance, and Friday night was no different.

Jamie Mackie's return to the international side following a lengthy injury lay-off was one of the highlights, with a terrific individual goal ample reward for a display full of endeavour and skill on the left side of the midfield five.

Levein will not be swayed from the formation he believes represents Scotland's best chance of future success, with one man sitting in front of a back four, and the rest of the midfield encouraged to support the lone striker as best they can.

The side's ability to do this still needs to be worked on, but Mackie - the most attack-minded of the midfield - got closest to Kenny Miller and, particularly in the long-term absence of Steven Naismith, this is likely to be where his immediate international future lies.

Some of the link-up play between Mackie, Miller and the ever-willing Steven Whittaker in the first half was extremely encouraging, yet it must be remembered that this came against a nation who chalked up just two points in their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

Scotland will not face a team of similar quality in the forthcoming qualifiers, with the sides seeded below them - Macedonia and Wales - considerably stronger than Friday night's opposition.

Some analysts - and supporters - have stated that the relative weakness of Cyprus should have led Levein to take a more experimental approach, with the manager's detractors insisting nothing was learned by fielding such an experienced side.

Again, though, Levein will not stray from his innately cautious approach just to appease the doubters.

He can point to a rare start for Don Cowie, the gentle introduction of Jordan Rhodes and some more international game time for James McArthur and Craig Conway as useful, if not extravagant, strategies that could benefit the team in future.

The victory, too, was clearly welcome, but the performance of Phil Bardsley at left-back, where he looked less than comfortable at times, again highlights the apparent dearth of talent Scotland possess in that area.

Bardsley is a good defender and is unfortunate Scotland are well served in his more natural position of right-back, but if someone like Lee Wallace or Paul Dixon could begin to show consistency at club level, they would have an opportunity to become international regulars in the years to come.

Darren Fletcher, often accused of failing to live up to his club standards when playing for Scotland, also had an off-night, with passes going astray, which would certainly have been punished by more clinical and capable opposition.

Yet the suggestion he should not be a first-pick for Scotland is ludicrous, given the class he shows on a weekly basis, while his continuing commitment to turn up for international friendlies while not 100% fit says much for his outstanding professionalism.

Neither he nor Bardsley trained properly until the day before the match, yet both showed the commitment Levein holds so dearly.

This underlines the continuing trust the players have in the manager. Every member of the squad has bought in to what he is trying to do, unlike under George Burley, for example.

There is great unity among the squad, and that is why those calling for the reinstatement of players like Steven Fletcher may have to wait.

For while Fletcher and others have undoubted talent, Levein wants nothing to upset the equilibrium. So long as Scotland are winning, he will be justified in sticking with those who will repay his loyalty in kind.

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