Monday, 21 January 2008

Sports Picks of 2007 - 17th November

European Championship, Qualifying Group B : Scotland 1 Italy 2

Italy ended Scotland's Euro 2008 dream and ensured their own qualification for next summer's finals thanks to a Christian Panucci stoppage-time goal. Luca Toni had stunned the Scots by stabbing the ball home from five yards with less than two minutes gone.

But Ferguson forced the ball home when Lee McCulloch's effort was saved after 65 minutes only for Panucci to head home from a disputed Pirlo free kick. The Scots believed that Alan Hutton had been fouled and the resulting goal meant that Italy qualify along with France, with the Scots in third, before both have to play their final Group B games in midweek.
The campaign to qualify for the European Championships has seen one of the most unlikely comebacks. The Scotland national team looked to be going the way that the Wales and Northern Ireland teams had gone not so long ago. Yet just as Wales enjoyed a renascence, getting to a playoff of qualifying for a major championship 4 years ago, Scotland began its journey back from the wilderness at about the same time. Bizarrely I think that being in “the group of death” helped.

Lets be honest, we didn’t think that we would qualify. France, Italy and Ukraine were the top seeds in our group, which was hard enough before the three of them made the World Cup quarter finals (with France and Italy contesting the final). Below them was a list of teams, for whom playing against was no a pleasant experience for Scotland sides of the recent past. Lithuania (lost to them away in 2003) & the Faroes (Drew twice away from home, in 1999 and in 2002). Georgia were the only unknowns. What happened next was the roller-coaster ride of all roller-coaster rides. And it ended here, at Hampden, with a game against the World Champions, with a win for either team meaning qualification.

The hype was just incredible.

The game itself just went past in a blur. Thinking about it now, Scotland really have themselves to blame, and not just for losing to Georgia in October. A win there would have seen us home and dry. In the Italy game though, we controlled about 75% of the game. We fell asleep in the first couple of minutes, and let Toni in to score. Italy came back into the game after we equalised. We fell asleep at the end when defending the free kick, which Pannucci scored from (top picture).

The campaign was a return to the old Scottish way of doing things, glorious failure. We really should have qualified, especially after the 1-0 win in Paris. Its one thing to have a backs to the wall defeat against one of the worlds best sides at home, like we did last year. Its another thing to eclipse that with a win in the back yard of one of the best sides of the world, and to make them look impotent up front into the bargain. After about an hour I thought to myself that this will probably turn out to be a 0-0 draw, reached for a paper to skim through, and missed McFadden’s goal (pictured).
But fail to qualify we did. We failed not because we had the two world cup finalists in our group, but because we failed to beat Georgia in Georgia, and made defensive errors against Italy. Typical Scotland.

So where do we go from here? Alex McLeish resigned 10 days after the Italy game to manage Birmingham City, which leaves a vacuum at the top of the Scotland game. Of the supposed shortlisted candidates, Tommy Burns and George Burley would be my own preferred candidates, Burns having bossed Celtic a decade ago creating an excellent passing side, but one which crumbled under pressure. Burley took Ipswich from 1st Division to Europe in 3 seasons, and also put together the Hearts side which was top of the league when Romanov fell out with him and dismissed him. That Hearts side went on to lift the Scottish Cup and split the Old Firm.

Of the other two, Mark McGee has had a chequered past managing in the English lower divisions. However this season, his Motherwell side have been playing some excellent football, pushing for a place in the UEFA Cup next season. The dignified way that the Motherwell, and their manager dealt with the untimely death of their captain, Phil O’Donnell, has also brought praise McGee’s way. But McGee’s Motherwell side is still something of a work in progress. Which brings us to Souness. On paper Souness would be, of the four, the ideal candidate. Over 50 Scotland caps, a hatful of trophies as a player. Managed Rangers and Liverpool, then in Italy, Turkey (where the chairman of his bitter rivals described him as “a cripple” – which is why he planted the flag at the end of the Turkish Cup final in 1996), Portugal and back here with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle. Yet there are doubts over his management skills. Hmmm, I know what you think.

Its not just the SFA board who need to think of their next step, there are players in Scotland who are good enough to play in the biggest leagues in the world, for the biggest teams. I hope that their next moves are for the betterment of their game, and not for the betterment of their bank balances.

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