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Strachan aims for two wins and Euro 2016 qualification

SOMETIMES articulating an ambition too early only exposes it to ridicule.

Gordon Strachan has previously been circumspect about what can be expected from the group of players he has at his disposal, but after the last couple of performances against Croatia and England he has clearly seen enough to pin his colours to the mast. The task in hand will be affected hugely by how the draw pans out at the Palais des Congres Acropolis in Nice next February but the Scotland manager is emboldened enough to feel that qualifying for the 24-team finals in France 2016 is a legitimate aspiration.

"I can see us qualifying for the European Championships," Strachan said as he looked ahead to Friday's meeting with Belgium.

"I think as a nation we have got a certain amount of really, really good players and if they stay fit then we have got a chance. If they don't, then we have to rely on team spirit, getting together, what we've already tried to do in the last couple of months."

Having said that, even such a modest ambition appeared ridiculous not long into Strachan's first competitive match in charge of his country, the meeting with Wales at Hampden in March.

"I've got to say that's the worst opening 25 minutes I have ever been involved with in my footballing career," he admitted.

"We watched a video of it afterwards and all the mistakes and I said: 'Listen, it gets worse, honestly, wait till you see this, you actually make a worse mistake then he does!'. There's people trying step-overs and falling on their faces. It really was horrendous, as bad as it gets.

"Then the next day because it was snowing, me, Mark [McGhee] and Stuart [McCall] had to go and clear with shovels, 40 yards by 40 yards, to train on. I thought: 'It doesn't get any worse than this. I haven't slept, I am shovelling snow around here for players who can't pass the ball to each other on grass, what I am doing? I could be sitting in a TV studio now, slaughtering people!'"

Although Scotland's hopes of reaching Brazil next summer have long since evaporated, Strachan's renewed sense of optimism also applies to the forthcoming double header. After Belgium at Hampden comes a trip to Skopje to take on Macedonia, but the former Celtic boss feels it is realistic to target six points.

"I want to win the next two games," said Strachan. "But it will be a test because Belgium are a top side."

Scotland's hopes of hurting the team which won 2-0 in the previous meeting between the two teams in Brussels last October are boosted by the absence of injured first-choice central defensive pairing Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen.

But with Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen and veteran Bayern defender Daniel Van Buyten - scorer of a crucial late equaliser between the teams at Hampden in March 2001 - likely to step in, Strachan knows Scotland will have to scheme their way to goal. "What you can't do is just throw in balls left, right and centre into the box because they are giants," he said.

While Strachan believes he can call upon a core of "really good" players, the Belgians are something else entirely. Suddenly, the lowland nation can boast strength and depth of exceptional players at big clubs all across Europe - a cast list headed by Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, Vertonghen and Nacer Chadli of Tottenham, Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Christian Benteke of Aston Villa. Their Golden Generation has already reached 10th in the Fifa world rankings, even if Strachan feels their emergence had an accidental quality.

"If you ask the people in Belgium, they don't know what happened," he said. "Some will come spouting, like the geezer at Shakhter Karagandy this week, saying we had a plan and all that, but sometimes a group of players can just come together at the same time."

With Steven Fletcher still not deemed fit enough to play for Sunderland, Strachan faces some intriguing selection dilemmas at either end of the field. In goal, David Marshall seems likely to deputise for the suspended Allan McGregor while up front he has four strikers - Leigh Griffths at League One Wolves, Jamie Mackie of Nottingham Forest, Ross McCormack of Leeds United and Blackburn's Jordan Rhodes - battling it out for what may be a solitary role.

This has been a good week for the Scotland boss, with Celtic's qualification meaning further Champions League exposure for Scott Brown, James Forrest and Charlie Mulgrew, even if he wishes more Scottish-qualified players occasionally had the chance to benefit.

"It's a terrific thing for Scottish football," he said. "But it's only really Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown and James Forrest who are going to get that competitive European football."

The Scotland boss, who is close to announcing a home friendly against USA at Hampden in November, also had further reflections on the 3-2 friendly defeat to England. "I got to a point where I went: 'Do us a favour, don't tell me I was unlucky anymore'," he said.

"It was concentration, it was nothing to do with luck. I had to explain that to somebody after about the 300th time. It wasn't like the ball was rolling towards the goal and a dug came along and stopped it on the line. That's bad luck."

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