Back in 1980, Archie Knox was Alex Ferguson’s assistant manager at Aberdeen when they were drawn to play Liverpool in the European Cup. Knox went to “spy” on the then mighty Anfield side when he encountered Bill Shankly. “So are you down to have a look at our great team?” asked Shankly, deadpan. “Aye son, they’ve all tried that . . .” Knox put away his notebook. Liverpool won 5-0 on aggregate.
It is easy to feel similarly fatalistic about Scotland taking on a Spanish team being described not only as great, but possibly one of the most exceptional and revolutionary football teams there has ever been.
There’s nothing pioneering about what Spain do, it’s just that they have taken one of the game’s elements and elevated it into an art form. Their signature is utterly dominating possession through excellent passing, movement and work-rate, especially in midfield. They call it all “tiki-taki”. Spain are both beautiful and merciless.
They will pass the ball between themselves, and through and around Scotland, for the best part of 90 minutes. That’s a given. Scotland in general and Craig Levein in particular will see nothing that they do not expect. That doesn’t make it any easier to live with.
Levein knows that tonight he will be yet another manager trying yet another gameplan to cope with the best international team on the planet. All he can do is hope to reduce their prolific advantages, bring the match within reach for Scotland, and see where things go from there.
Although Vicente del Bosque, is expected to make a few changes Spain won’t surprise Scotland and Scotland won’t surprise Spain. Kenny Dalglish may have dropped in to their training base at La Manga yesterday but he’s in his sixties now. There is no-one of his calibre to score the goals these days.
Still, the Scotland manager is satisfied with the players he has. He sounded enthusiastic and ready yesterday as he discussed how the game would be approached. It was all sensible and pragmatic. “We need to be fully concentrated defensively. Everyone has a responsibility to do their job, tracking runners, the basics. It’s football since day one; tracking runners. If we mark when the guy is trying to pass then he can’t pass to him.
“It’s not just Xavi they have. It maybe looks like that but I’ll speak to Mick Oliver [SFA scout] and he says ‘if you stop Xabi Alonso playing it’s good’. I’ll say ‘make up your mind, is it Xavi or Xabi Alonso? Is it David Villa or whoever?’ Spain are as successful as they have been because they are top, top players. We have to try and stop them playing. Not just stop one player. We have to stop them at source.”
So, at the risk of asking a daft question, how can one of the game’s greatest ever teams be hurt? “There are areas in their team which means the way they play leaves them open at times. They play a free-flowing, attacking style of football, so because of that there are areas where they are vulnerable.
The question is: can we show enough composure? Can we play the right weighted pass? Little things. Can we get into the last third of the park. Can we capitalise on what we can maybe call their areas of weakness? Can we do that? That’s the question?
“We have got players who are capable of getting themselves into position to score goals. Craig Mackail-Smith or Kenny Miller or whoever it is understands how to play that role.
We are lucky that in James Morrison and Steven Naismith, in particular, we have the energy to run off the midfield players and get into the box. Whether the final ball is right or the finish is right we will have to wait and find out. But I am confident we will get into positions.”
Still, Levein knows how the game will unfold. Any Scotland chance will come as an interruption to Spain’s monopoly of the ball.
They’ll buzz around the Scotland goal and it will be a big night for goalkeeper Allan McGregor. “Allan might have to make a dozen brilliant saves. That’s a fact. And I am confident that Allan McGregor can make a dozen brilliant saves. Spain probably have to underperform and we have to have 11 players at the top of their game. In any game of football -- or any sport where one team are favourites and another team are underdogs -- for the result to be a surprise the favourites have to underperform and the underdogs have to raise their game. That’s what we intend to do. I am almost certain Spain won’t be spending these two days working on how to stop Scotland play.”
Normally, Scotland would simply attempt to dig in and defend in an away game against Spain but a win would guarantee a Euro 2012 play-off place so they will have to open up. A draw could be good enough, too, or the result could be entirely meaningless if the Czech Republic lose in Lithuania. Events in Kaunas are likely to be pivotal. “The players don’t need to know what’s happening over there, but we do,” said Levein, alluding to changes of emphasis for Scotland depending on whether the Czechs are winning or losing. The games are simultaneous.
“We will be catered for in that regard. We will have a computer link-up so we will know what is happening. We certainly won’t be relying on the crowd’s reaction -- ‘was that a cheer we heard there?’ -- so we’ll have that sorted. A big part of me hopes the Czechs get beaten, but I can’t honestly say how that game will go. I can’t go into our game thinking that the Czechs will lose. I have to think only about how we beat Spain.”