Craig Levein: 'I desperately want Scotland to go to Brazil'

Manager says his team are capable of coming top of a challenging World Cup qualifying group

If Scotland wilt under the weight of World Cup expectation, there can be no reasonable claim that such pressure was applied externally after Craig Levein offered the latest, glowing appraisal of his team on the eve of the crucial qualifying visit of Serbia to Hampden Park.

The Scotland manager has never struggled at being convincing in front of an audience but the country's absence from a major tournament – which sits at 14 years and counting – has prompted wider anxiety. The time has now arrived for Levein and his players to walk the walk.

"If you had asked me two years ago if the group we had could win every game in a campaign I would have hesitated and been a little unsure. But I think we have a squad now capable of that," Levein said. "We are capable, yes. Definitely."

That is a bold claim. Serbia aside, Scotland's section includes Belgium, Croatia, Wales and Macedonia. As much as Fifa's world rankings regularly appear flawed, only the last of these are rated lower than Levein's side.

"I feel I am in a better place than I was two years ago," he said. "The players are better individually and collectively. They understand the system, they have more international and club experience and the atmosphere within the group is 100 times better than it was."

With two opening home matches – Macedonia visit Glasgow on Tuesday – the pressure of achieving a quick start is on the Scots. "Yeah, but that's good isn't it" Levein said. "That's what it's all about. To qualify for a major tournament, I don't expect us to go through the campaign without being under pressure. We're under pressure. But that's why I have got top quality players. They play under pressure every week.

"The players have earned my respect over the last two years by gradually improving their own personal performances and improving the performance of the team. So I've got huge confidence in them. We're in such a different place now than we were two years ago when I was just in the job and didn't really know what I had, what system to play.

"We're so far removed from that now that I'm hugely confident going into the game on Saturday. We're at home and our intention is to get all three points. I hear they're intending to get all three points as well so it's going to be interesting."

To the suggestion that Scotland's chances would already be fatally wounded if they lose to Serbia? "That's a bit short-sighted, is it not? I know that has been said but not by anybody who knows what they're talking about."

Levein is perfectly aware that elements of the Scottish public remain unconvinced by his methods. The now infamous deployment of a 4-6-0 formation for an away meeting with the Czech Republic and the continued absence of Sunderland's Steven Fletcher from the international scene are the issues commonly raised by Levein's detractors. The 47-year-old's single-mindedness is a managerial quality commonly criticised as obstinance.

The former Hearts, Leicester and Dundee United manager also knows this campaign will shape his immediate career path; another Scottish qualification failure would surely spell the end of Levein's tenure, while progress to Brazil would render it highly likely his stock would be sufficiently high for a return to the club scene in England.

"I don't expect, and I don't need to be liked," said Levein. "I got judged as soon as I sat on my chair. I don't disagree with that at all. Since day one, I have been judged by everybody and I am still getting judged by everybody because that's the job.

"What I need everyone to know is that there is nobody who wants Scotland to go to Brazil more than me. Nobody. And nobody has prepared or worked harder in the last couple of years to get us into the position we're in now. If it came down to how much you want it, we'd already be there.

"The thing with this job is that you don't get an apprenticeship. You are just right in and get on with it and you have to learn as you go along. I desperately want to go to Brazil and I have learned so much in the last two years about this job. About my players, about other international teams. I am a much better international manager now than I was two years ago.

"We've all got to prove it, I know we've got to prove it and the players know we've got to prove it. But we're ready to go, it's as simple as that."

Levein's message seems to have been effectively transmitted to his squad members. Gary Caldwell, who will captain his country against the Serbs in winning his 50th cap, said: "The players have a big responsibility to go and deliver. We believe we can be the team at the top, come the end of the group."

Chelsea's Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic has dismissed that notion by claiming Scotland struggle and become disorientated when football is played on the ground, although he backed down from such a theory pointing to the time-honoured issue of mis-translation. "When in conflict, don't tell anyone what you are going to do to them," smiled Levein in response to Ivanovic's comments.

The Serbia coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, believes Scotland should be handed the status as favourites because they are playing at home. "Our group is very tough," added Mihajlovic. "It is very equal. Every team can win in every game."

Levein has stated loftier ambitions. A nation expects he and his players to finally deliver.

comments powered by Disqus