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Spiers on Sport: why Levein must gamble against Macedonia and drop Miller

Craig Levein is being sorely reminded these days that a football manager is judged by two things: his words and his deeds. On both counts right now the Scotland manager is looking vulnerable.

Kenny Miller struggles to win a header against Serbia
Kenny Miller struggles to win a header against Serbia

Scotland’s 0-0 draw with Serbia in their opening World Cup qualifier at Hampden once more flew in the face of Levein’s constant claims about “progress, progress” being made by his team.

Frankly, if this was progress against Sinisa Mihajlovic’s men, then Levein might need a decade to make a noticeable impression.

Yes, it was only one game, one 90 minutes, but the importance of it to Levein’s credibility as Scotland manager cannot be overstated. His team are in a merciless group in this qualifying campaign, and what could scarcely be countenanced was two dropped points at home against the Serbs.

Levein claimed later that his team had “a lot of chances” to win the match – this was stretching the truth. In reality, in the 90 minutes, Scotland had two decent goal attempts, one from Steven Naismith which was missed, and a late effort by James Forrest which was saved.

Indeed, in the second half it was the Serbs who had the two best chances, one from Aleksandar Kolarov which flew wide, the other from Dusan Tadic, which Allan McGregor saved.

It was an uninspired and ragged Scotland performance which ultimately reflects on the manager. If Levein doesn’t deliver a victory against Macedonia at Hampden on Tuesday night he will be looking at his jotters; even with a win, given the better opponents Scotland are about to face, his side will still be lagging.

These hours ahead of Tuesday now look like being the most acute and defining of Levein’s career so far as a manager. And the toughest part of it may also determine the greater good of the team.

Levein cannot possibly start Kenny Miller against Macedonia – not when he was as poor as he was against the Serbs. The 32-year-old striker is now in the twilight of his international career, is based in Vancouver, and on Saturday looked every inch a man who had been on long-haul flights.

Criticising Miller is a cruel business, because he has been such a selfless worker for Scotland over the past 10 years. But he was woeful against Serbia – there is no avoiding it.

Miller appeared leaden and clumsy amid Scotland’s fruitless forays, and Levein will now feel pressure to drop him and throw in Jordan Rhodes, a striker who, by Levein’s own admission, has been unable to stop scoring goals over the past two seasons.

But in Rhodes, Levein has a problem. The Blackburn player cannot play as a lone striker - he needs a partner. That would mean going 4-4-2 from the start, which is an anathema to Levein.

Well, Craig, now is the time to gamble, to be brave. It cannot be beyond the capability of Scotland to play two strikers at home against a side ranked 97th in the world, and that is what is required against Macedonia.

Via Twitter someone said to me on Saturday: “You are openly contemptuous of Levein.” I was taken aback by the claim, given how much I like Levein, have admired his work in football, and how chuffed I felt when he got the Scotland job.

But some things right now don’t stack up. In an age of poverty for Scotland in international football, something is wrong when we have two strikers, Rhodes worth £8m, and Steven Fletcher worth £12m, neither of whom can start a game under Levein.

Ultimately, can the Scotland manager convincingly explain why this is? I don’t believe so.

As much as I admire Levein, he is heaping pressure on himself. George Burley, his predecessor, was lampooned for his apparently “naïve” attacking football. But Burley had almost as many good nights with Scotland as Levein has had so far – including one heroic evening against Holland – and Burley was tactically brave in the final third of the pitch. Levein, by comparison, looks timid.

Big night at Hampden on Tuesday. We are looking at a Scotland manager, a man of bloody-minded conviction, with whom the Tartan Army is becoming increasingly disenchanted.

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