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Rae's say: In the lions' den

If a new national team manager had the power to pick his first fixture with a view to it being winnable, suffice to say an away match against Italy at the San Siro would hardly top the list.

Yet for Walter Smith and Scotland, success in Milan this weekend on Smith's debut, will be measured less by how the game affects the accumulation of points in Group 5, and more by the quality of performance.

I suppose there's little alternative given that not even the most optimistic Scot (optimism is generally not in our blood) is anticipating anything other than a comfortable victory for the azzurri on Saturday.

Expectations are so low these days, we're left to chew on the crumbs of consolation provided by such things as organisation, team shape and the extent to which our lads 'play for the jersey.'

Sadly, under the chaotic stewardship of Berti Vogts, not even these attributes could be taken for granted. Scotland lost their reputation as a limited team technically, who were nevertheless rarely ripped apart, irrespective of their opponents' level. Heavy international defeats suddenly became the norm.

Maybe then, Smith's task is less burdensome than it first appears. Evolution rather than revolution, is the buzzword. Scotland, after all, won't after all be mutating into Brazil, or even England, overnight. Modest improvements in all aspects of the game will be enough for now.

It's just a pity Smith doesn't have the luxury of naming a full-strength team to take with him to one of football's most glamourous stadia. His opposite number Marcello Lippi can lose Alessandro Nesta and Vicenzo Montella through injury, and leave Alex del Piero out of the squad altogether and barely bat an eyelid.

The former Rangers and Everton boss on the other hand, knows it will be that bit more difficult for the Scots, minus Darren Fletcher, Christian Dailly, James McFadden and Paul Dickov.

Barry Ferguson's joust with former Rangers man Rino Gattuso promises to be absorbing.
Derek Rae
The diminutive Blackburn striker would likely have been a valuable asset to Scotland this weekend as the lone front-runner. Dickov, a constant pest with his non-stop running and hassling is out with a groin strain.

Since Smith believes Hibs' on-song forward Derek Riordan is better off remaining with the under-21 squad for the moment, Dundee United's Stevie Crawford is odds-on to play up from the beginning.

Kenny Miller, Garry O'Connor and Steven Thompson will all be ready to relieve him in the second half. It could easily be an exercise in chasing vigorously without the ball.

Understandably against such a high-level side, Scotland can be expected to try to suffocate Italy in midfield and disrupt their rhythm and slick passing.

Southampton's Nigel Quashie, one of the few success stories of the Vogts era, will undoubtedly have an important role to play, alongside Barry Ferguson.

Since returning home to Rangers after eighteen months at Blackburn Rovers, Ferguson appears more contented with life generally; a fact evident from his dynamic play on the park. At 27, he knows it's time to take his game to a higher level on the international stage. Ferguson's joust with former Rangers man Rino Gattuso promises to be absorbing.

At the back, 34-year-old David Weir, who played for Smith at Everton, makes a welcome return to the national team set-up. As the current Goodison Park boss David Moyes has rightly pointed out, Weir is not a long-term solution to Scotland's defensive problems, but his experience and ability to read a game should serve Scotland well at tricky venues such as the San Siro. Steven Pressley, an automatic choice by Smith's predecessor, looks set to partner Weir in central defence.

Walter Smith: Remaining upbeat
Walter Smith: Remaining upbeat

In goal, Rab Douglas doesn't always exude confidence, but Smith reckons he's the best man available. The Celtic keeper came in for strong criticism after his recent blunder in the Old Firm game, but made a fantastic save in the closing moments against Dundee United last week to assure his club of three valuable points in a tight SPL title race.

Another factor that might help Scotland's quest for respectability on Saturday, is the outlook of the Italians themselves. Unlike Holland or England, the azzurri rarely embarrass visitors to the peninsula by running up a cricket score. Far more in keeping with the Italian tradition is a narrow margin of victory that flies in the face of their overall superiority. Their natural inclination to preserve the win at all costs, rather than trying to pile on the goals, might help Scotland avoid another psychological scarring.

No Scotland boss has tasted victory on his managerial debut since the late Jock Stein engineered a 3-2 win over Norway in his first match in charge twenty seven years ago. That situation is unlikely to change come half past ten at the San Siro on Saturday night.

Even in defeat, if the Scots can get through this daunting challenge more or less unscathed, Smith can then begin the real work in matches more likely to bear fruit.

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