What has been an awful World Cup campaign will continue tonight in Belgium, match number four out of 10, when only a truly eye-opening result will restore a pulse to the qualifiers. The objectives are to prolong even the semblance of a chance of reaching the 2014 World Cup, and to keep manager Craig Levein in his post.
Footballers and coaches have a tendency towards denial, or dancing around issues, when someone's job is on the line, but neither Levein nor his captain, Darren Fletcher, did so when the matter was raised last night at a media conference in Brussels. Levein claimed to have deliberately isolated himself from the external debate about whether he should be removed – the Scottish Football Association party remained in the luxurious Celtic Manor resort in Wales from Thursday until yesterday lunchtime – but he knows the gravity of his position without recourse to the media or websites. If Scotland are to have any hope of coping with a vibrant young Belgian team they will need Levein to be clear-headed before and during the match, not preoccupied by the dread of getting a tap on the shoulder and his P45 from the SFA.
"I don't even think about it, all I can do is concentrate on the games," he said. "Thinking or worrying about anything else is counter-productive. I don't know what other people are saying. Maybe out there there is a debate going on but I don't know about it. Deliberately. It would do the players no good if I was worrying about other things."
Levein has had a significant input to the SFA's national performance strategy and has been a long-term thinker since joining the governing body. That is worth stressing as otherwise his complaint about football's rush to sack managers would sound predictable and self-serving.
"You can chop and change managers as many times as you want and say, 'that manager didn't work and that manager didn't work and that one didn't work. What happens then is you go out and look for another manager who is the Messiah and he is going to make everything work. But I keep saying this: the teams at the top of the tree are the ones that have actually put a system in place to produce players. This is me talking about the long game, this is not about just now."
There is a time when idealism crashes into reality, though, and it has come for Levein. There has been far too little evidence that he will be a successful Scotland manager and his own mantra about seeing progress has sounded hollow. The rest of the country needs to see it too.
A Belgian side with talents such as Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Christian Benteke and Thomas Vermaelen – they also have Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku although both are out injured tonight – are expected to sweep Scotland aside.
Levein needs those in the King Baudouin Stadium to witness a vindication of the claims he has always made about his own team.
"There are situations as a manager where you find you need to get a big performance. There have been so many situations which have just about kick-started us in the last couple of years but we're still searching for that one which changes the tide. I really believe we have a big performance in us – and we need it in this game. I don't have any less belief in the players ahead of this game than I did before last Friday night.
"That big performance is in there and the challenge is getting it out."
Inevitably, the matter of his future kept recurring. Was he fighting to keep his job?
"Those decisions are not mine. I firmly believe in what we're doing, I really do. What I need more than anything else – to convince other people – is to get some results. When I say that I'm talking about everybody: you guys, punters who don't think we're going in the right direction, and everybody else," Levein said.
"The fact we didn't win in Wales, in my eyes, doesn't mean I throw everything out. A lot of people look at it and say 'it was a loss,' and 100% it is. But in my mind I see another step in the right direction. I felt we did okay against Serbia then I was disappointed how we played against Macedonia. We were missing some key players in key areas and I thought those guys made a real difference coming on against Wales. We looked as good as we have done – I feel, anyway – since I've been in this job. We did everything right up until the point of the disallowed goal."
He was aghast that Charlie Adam's cross was deemed to have gone out of play on its way over to Steven Fletcher's head. Had the goal stood, Scotland would have gone 2-0 up. "In all my time in football I have never, ever seen a decision like that," he said.
That moment was cruel but a far longer series of poor qualifying results, over two campaigns, have brought Levein to this crisis point. His claims of improvement and the prospect of a brighter future have worn thin.
"From my point of view jam tomorrow is better than no jam at all, isn't it?" he said.
But what has been beyond him so far has been the bread and butter – winning qualifying games – and it is hard to believe the trend will change tonight.
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