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Advocaat's vested interest in the improbable dream

Dick Advocaat will afford himself a pang of pride if Alex McLeish�s Scotland continue to cut a swashbuckling swathe through Euro 2008 qualifying Group B.

Dick Advocaat will afford himself a pang of pride if Alex McLeish's Scotland continue to cut a swashbuckling swathe through Euro 2008 qualifying Group B.

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The Dutchman is four games away from guiding Zenit St Petersburg to the Russian title, but having returned home to The Hague during the international break, his focus will switch to the remarkable football renaissance that has occurred in a country he still regards as his second home.

Advocaat derives warm satisfaction from his recommendation to David Murray six years ago that McLeish, then of Hibernian, would be the man to rejuvenate a Rangers side riven by dressing-room disharmony. Having vindicated that support with seven trophies, McLeish is now at the vanguard of Scotland's unlikely quest to end a decade of despondency and qualify for the finals in Austria and Switzerland.

"Scotland have a difficult game against Ukraine but I also know that Scottish football is prosperous again," Advocaat told The Herald.

"It will be quite an interesting match.

I am going back to Holland for a few days but I still have satellite television so I will watch it.

"Scotland had some problems before but they have been fixed by my old friends Walter Smith and now Alex. I am delighted for Alex, I knew what he could do and that is why myself and David Murray gave him the opportunity at Rangers.

"They have better players than they have had for a few years and also better managers. I am still in close contact with Alex and he has great possibilities now if you look at his achievements: four years at Rangers and a spell in charge of Scotland have given him great experience and I am not surprised he has done so well - that's why I recommended him to David in the first place."

Advocaat has a better handle than most on the threat to the improbable dream. While Andriy Shevchenko is the best-known of Oleg Blokhin's squad, his reputation has diminished spectacularly since leaving AC Milan for Chelsea. Andriy Voronin is the new poster boy for Ukrainian football abroad, having made an immediate impact alongside Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Advocaat, though, is in possession of arguably the most impressive of Ukraine's current crop.

Anatoliy Tymoschuk is the one that got away from Gordon Strachan. Celtic's sustained interest in the former Shakhtar Donetsk captain was torpedoed when Zenit splashed out 15m and he has been the driving force behind their title challenge.

He was a midfield metronome during Ukraine's 2-0 win against Scotland in Kiev and will be central to Blokhin's plans to neutralise the threat of James McFadden, Scotland's hero against France, while supplying ample support to Voronin and Shevchenko. Tymoschuk is to Ukraine what Barry Ferguson is to Scotland. Advocaat, of course, handed Ferguson the captain's armband at 20 after stripping Lorenzo Amoruso of the honour, but their talismanic property is where similarities end between Tymoschuk and Ferguson.

"He is my captain and leader," said Advocaat proudly. "I bought him for 15m from Shakhtar and he really is a key player. He is not the most creative player but he can control a game, no problem. He sits in front of the defence and just dictates the rhythm. He is also a top professional who is respected by all of his team-mates and has been very influential for us this season.

"He is different to Barry. He is not a player who makes a lot of running into the opposition penalty area but he is a vital player for Ukraine and, remember, this is their last chance."

Ferguson, at 29, is primed for the grand stage of international football next summer. He is driven by the fear of emulating Ryan Giggs and never experiencing a major championship finals. "Everyone knows what he can do," said Advocaat. "He knows what I think of him, too, and it is natural for top players to play at the top level for club and country."

Scotland currently occupy top spot in a group that also includes the World Cup finalists, France and Italy. With three games remaining, this will either prove the most outstanding achievement in Scotland's football history or represent an unprecedented level of glorious failure. Scotland's last bruising elimination was meted out by Advocaat. McFadden's goal in a memorable 1-0 win at Hampden in the Euro 2004 play-off against Holland was ruined by a 6-0 deluge in the Amsterdam ArenA that exposed Scotland's brittle condition under Berti Vogts.

"At that time we had the better players, there was no doubt about that," he recalled. "Now, Scotland have younger players and have a greater belief about themselves. A home game is also a big difference at international level and Hampden Park gives Scotland a great advantage.

"Ukraine have talent. Shevchenko is the best known, but he has had a difficult time in the Premiership. Voronin has done an excellent job already for Liverpool. Scotland will also be familiar with some of the players from Shakhtar Donestk and Dnipro. It was a good result for Aberdeen and it means that Scotland can be confident of playing against those players.

"It is unfair of me to judge the Scotland team because I have not seen many of them up close, but their results have been excellent under both Walter and Alex."

Advocaat, despite fibs about retiring at 60, has had his enthusiasm for the dugout replenished in Russia.

He endured stinging criticism for his tactics and team selections, despite taking Holland to the semi-finals of Euro 2004 on his second tour of duty. He has led a nomadic existence since departing Rangers, comprising spells in charge of Borussia Moenchengladbach, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and now Zenit. His next gig is widely expected to be Australia national coach, but he will be tempted by a raft of rubles if Zenit can clinch the championship.

"I'm very satisfied with our progress but it is still a difficult process," he said. "At the start of the season, we had so many different cultures and languages but they have been gelling. We are getting better and better and are in a strong position with four games to go. The money is there, there is no doubt about that, but in Russia they have the same problem as in Scotland; they still cannot attract the very top players from Italy and Spain. They just don't want to come.

"We tried last season to sign Cristiano Lucarelli but he did not want to leave Livorno and offend his fans. He has since signed for Shakhtar in Ukraine for a lot of money. Yes, it is true that Russian teams can now pay salaries higher than most, but the other problem is there are more agents around than ever; they are becoming more important than the players and that can't be right.

"We have three home games in the run-in and to win the championship, even to finish second, would be a great achievement."

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