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'We have a group where it is not impossible to finish second . . .'

IT was never likely to be mistaken for a Hampden roar, but the noises emanating from those gathered at the national stadium yesterday for the draw for the 2016 European Championships were highly supportive of Scotland's prospects of qualifying for its first major finals this century.

McCall and McGhee watch the draw from Hampden. Picture: SNS
McCall and McGhee watch the draw from Hampden. Picture: SNS

The whoops of joy from members of the Tartan Army invited by the Scottish Football Association to watch the draw in the company of Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall, part of Gordon Strachan's coaching staff, were almost exclusively reserved for the moment Belgium were drawn in another group.

But there was a genuine sigh of relief after the palaver in Nice that the draw could have been more unkind on Scotland.

Indeed, McGhee said: "You are looking at a section . . . where it is not impossible to finish second."

Those veterans of recent Scottish campaigns that have ended routinely in failure could mutter that this is a section where Scotland could finish fourth, too.

However, the cynical tongue must be held to allow at least a degree of optimism to permeate reflections on a group that offers a play-off spot, at least, for the third-placed team.

It must be noted, too, that McGhee was not indulging in unthinking triumphalism. His words may be hostages to fortune but there is enough to suggest his reasoning supplies most of the ransom money.

"Listen, I'm telling you how I feel," he said. "I am not making a prepared speech that was going to come out regardless of who we drew to try to get a positive spin on it. I am looking at the section like a Scotland supporter and assessing what chance we have. We have a chance."

This upbeat assessment is supported by one statistic: Scotland came out of pot four but are ranked second of the teams in the group. The list runs thus: the Germans are the second-best team in the world, the Scots are 34th, Ireland 67th, Poland 70th and Georgia 103rd, while Gibraltar have yet to be ranked, ahead of playing their first competitive fixture.

McGhee, too, was realistic about the challenges presented by Georgia and Gibraltar. "We have to look at this way. If we are going to qualify we have to beat the teams from the pots below us. If we can not beat them then what are we doing here?

"So in the Gibraltar games we would expect the Scotland team will be good enough to take maximum points. That is not being silly, that is a fact." Gibraltar, too, will be played in Faro, Portugal, rather than on The Rock.

The inclusion of Germany in the group is not wholly without consolation. First, it offers Scotland fans the chance to see a wonderfully vibrant side at home. Second, Germany tend to be equal opportunity victors in that they should brush aside all sides in the group, leaving the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Scotland to fight it out for the places that would ensure or, at least, open up an opportunity to get to France in 2016.

Those of a naturally upbeat disposition - and these characters are usually not found to be Caledonian - will also argue that Ireland are not invincible and have many of their best players coming to the end of careers. There were even mutters about the quality of Poland but these should be stifled by the mere mention of Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski, all of Borussia Dortmund.

The problems for Scotland exist both in the past and the future. The previous record of non-achievement drives Strachan, McGhee and McCall. Indeed, McGhee yesterday insisted the present coaching staff take the share of the blame for not qualifying for Rio, since victories against Wales and Serbia could have put Scotland "back in the mix" for a first foray at a World Cup finals since 1998. "We feel that badly," he said of the aftermath of that failure.

It is as yet unknown whether this culture of coming up short will pray on the collective mind of the squad or prove an inspiration.

It is, though, inarguable that the fixture list has produced a series of games to test the resilience of the momentum built up under Strachan that included competitive victories over Macedonia and Croatia at the fag end of the World Cup qualifying group and the defeat of Norway away in a friendly and a home draw with the USA.

Scotland's prospects of qualifying for France should be much clearer by the end of the year. The opening tranche of fixtures in Group D means Strachan's side must face Germany away, Georgia at home, Poland away, and the Republic of Ireland at home in 2014. Six points is the minimum requirement from these matches if Scotland is not to descend into the national sport of straw-clutching.

The problem for Scotland is that genuine competence in goal and in midfield is severely compromised by a lack of quality in defence and the absence of a genuine scorer at international level.

Both McGhee and McCall made reference to the Wales match in March last year that formed the competitive debut of team Strachan.

There is an understandable urge to consign to history an abject, almost farcical start to the game when Scotland gave away possession from the back and looked highly vulnerable in defence.

This fallibility remains, though Strachan, through organisation and an element of good fortune, has watched his team become more parsimonious.

His major wish ahead of the qualifiers surely would be that a dominant centre-half should suddenly become available. That, though, only occurs when managers can use the transfer market.

As McGhee intimated yesterday, young Scottish hopes are unlikely to find themselves in the plans of the manager this year. Strachan must rely on such as Christophe Berra, Russell Martin and Grant Hanley to perform heroically in defence.

The message yesterday from McGhee and the Tartan Army was one of "bring it on". If this chorus is reprised after the first four matches, a significant step will have been made on the road to France.

Alternatively, early setbacks will produce the sigh of disappointment that is in danger of forming a football anthem that is as unwanted as it is regular and dispiriting.

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