The question of "what if?" has been posed amid postmortems of Scotland qualifying campaigns far more often than anyone involved in them would care to remember.

It has not stopped it appearing again. After Scotland beat Croatia to end their World Cup qualifying section with three wins out of their final four matches, the rising notion is that the Scottish FA waited too long before replacing Craig Levein with Gordon Strachan. By the time Strachan took charge in January hopes of a first finals appearance since 1998 were non-existent because of a dismal start to Group A.

Strachan, understandably, dodged the direct question over timing. "You never know," said the Scotland manager. "I can't tell. I really can't tell you that. It would be unfair, to me, to comment on that as well.

"As I've stated many a time, confidence comes from winning games and being in the dressing room afterwards when they celebrate together as a group.

"I hope they go back now to their clubs and go: 'I liked that, we got a bit of praise.' Sometimes you come back from an international game and be down. Sometimes the manager who is receiving them back has to pick them up. You have to work at them but now I think they're going back and it's not a problem, they're actually adding to their club."

Perhaps out of respect for his predecessor, Strachan spoke more freely about the bizarre non-award of a legitimate goal against Wales in Cardiff last October. Levein's team were a goal ahead at that point and went on to lose a crucial encounter 2-1.

"I look at the first couple of games, and I look at Wales in particular," Strachan said. "We were 1-0 up and a decision cost Scotland the game. It could have been all different."

Croatia have confirmed that Igor Stimac's tenure as manager ended at Hampden Park. Stimac offered his resignation immediately after Scotland's 2-0 success, which was accepted. Niko Kovac will take charge of the team for next month's World Cup play-off games.

Scotland's fourth-placed group finish affords them no such opportunity. It will be 11 months before Strachan takes charge of his team for another competitive fixture, in itself a cause of frustration given recent results.

"It's not easy, you just don't turn up and say: 'Listen, we'll have a rest, we'll have a cup of tea, we'll go out and do a bit of training,'" Strachan said. "I'm not saying that happened before. Trust me, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I'm never confident, unless I know I've worked with the team, to go on to the pitch. As I've said before, we're not Manchester United. Manchester United just say: 'There's 11 players, let's play.' We're a bit different from that.

"We do not have world-class players. We have a group of players that as a group can win games, that's for sure. Luka Modric was still magnificent against us. Magnificent but the team beat him. The team didn't allow him to be on the winning side."

Strachan also denied that the progress of Iceland, a country with a population of around 320,000, to the play-offs rendered Scottish attitudes as overly defeatist when it comes to international football. "You've got to look at the group they were in," Strachan said. "If you have a look at our group, there are two teams [Belgium and Croatia] in there that would be in the top five in the world at the moment. It's a big difference.

"I looked at some groups and thought I wouldn't mind being in there. I think Belgium were the third seeds in ours. You couldn't have seen them doing as well as that, producing players like that. The Belgian team has developed way beyond expectations."