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Organised, committed, and difficult to conquer

HERE's a sobering thought for any Scotland supporter still savouring that satisfying result in Poland the other night:

Gordon Strachan directs his squad during his invaluable few hours of training. Picture: SNS
Gordon Strachan directs his squad during his invaluable few hours of training. Picture: SNS

the opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany is an hour-and-a-half away.

Do not be deceived by the calendar saying something to the contrary. It is exactly six months today that the Group D campaign opens with Scotland travelling to take on the country bookmakers have installed as the strongest European team going to the World Cup. But for manager Gordon Strachan there is only one game, just 90 more minutes, in which to watch his team in action before the start of the 10 qualifiers which will define his career as an international manager.

Negotiations are ongoing about a match against Nigeria at Fulham's Craven Cottage on May 28. Fifa's removal of the traditional August date for international friendlies means the London game, if confirmed, will be Scotland's last outing before Germany.

Happily, it is not all about matches for Strachan. He is a training ground coach who finds that environment almost as rewarding and useful as playing games. Despite the pleasing Warsaw victory delivered by Scott Brown's late goal it still niggled at the manager that he did not get as much time with the players as he would have wished.

It had felt like "a wee holiday", he said, alluding to the fact that since they were all together for such a brief time the sessions had to be intense. Those around the camp said things were so businesslike that "not a minute was wasted".

Strachan gives the impression that he would be perfectly content to have his men together for four or five whole days without playing a match at all, such is the value that amount of time would have in terms of him imparting his knowledge and wishes to them.

The suggested plan for London is to have them together for about four days before the Nigeria game. Over the past year Scotland's improving results show that Strachan can be trusted to put that to good use.

No-one is likely to go weak at the knees about this Scotland team he has assembled. There is not exactly a great deal of flair or menace about them. At times they can be a hard watch. But they are organised, disciplined, committed and difficult to beat. That is not a bad set of qualities.

Last March Scotland served up arguably the worst half-an-hour of football delivered by a team in the national colours. The opening 30 minutes of the 2-1 defeat to Wales were pitiful. Defeat in Serbia four days later meant two losses in a week. Now Scotland are on a five-game unbeaten run stretching back to September. They have gone four games without conceding a goal, and from their last three trips to Macedonia, Norway and Poland they've returned three narrow wins.

"I hope the supporters are taking heart from our performances," said Strachan. "I think that's why we have the national team, to make people happy. They probably want a wee bit more but we'll try and do that. That's all we can guarantee.

"We'll use the hours we've been given. We have to work even harder at other things. But we can't put any more hours in. This is the number of hours we get. We're trying to do four things in a training session, when you would maybe do one or two in normal circumstances. We're having to cram things in. But we'll do that."

Poland were without their two best players, Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, and it was impossible to assess how much their performance was diminished by the absence of the Borussia Dortmund pair.

Without them they looked a tidy but limited group, enthusiastic but lacking a goal threat. There was nothing about the fixture which conflicted with the widespread belief that Group D will have a quartet of teams - Scotland, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Georgia - cutting each other's throats and fiercely contesting the runners-up and play-off positions behind the irresistible Germans.

Scotland will build a successful campaign only if they win nearly all of their five home games and pick up points in Warsaw, Dublin, Tblisi and, naturally, against Gibraltar when those new opponents are faced at neutral Faro in Portugal. Alan Hutton and Ross McCormack had half-chances before Brown's goal but the attacking side of the performance left much room for improvement on Wednesday.

It was no surprise that when asked about Poland missing their two big names Strachan was inclined to provide a reminder that Robert Snodgrass and Shaun Maloney were absent too. He likes those two and perhaps their quality would have had more success in opening up a stuffy Polish defence.

Steven Fletcher gave a colourless first-half performance and was eclipsed by Steven Naismith's busy display as his replacement after the interval. Strachan is inclined to stick with Fletcher, having faith that when the qualifiers begin he will be entirely free of the injury problems which seem to have dulled his sharpness this season.

Naismith and Ross McCormack were bright in Warsaw and Leigh Griffiths can elbow his way further up the pecking order if he begins next season well with Celtic. Although Scotland's options seem at their richest from middle to front, it is not a team which scores many goals. Two is the most they have managed in any of the 11 games under Strachan and over all those fixtures they have a goal difference of only plus one.

But after the early qualifying defeats a year ago those figures confirm the creeping improvement made by this manager and his players. Strachan's view is that collectively they lack a little confidence around the final third. The team looks quite comfortable in possession and knocking passes around, but not enough is being done to play through defences and open them up.

If it is possible to improve that via a handful of intense coaching sessions, then Scotland have a manager who relishes the opportunity to prove it.

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