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Icardi still underrated, misunderstood

Serie A

Lille appoint interim coaching team


Rae's Say: A job well done

Lightning has struck twice. Yes, forgive me for feeling compelled to start this week's musings with Scotland, the top dogs in European Championship qualifying Group B.

Not in our wildest dreams did we Scots think France could be toppled by our team of battlers again. Critics might claim both Scottish 1-0 wins were achieved by playing cautious, cagey football, designed purely to contain the opposition.

We'll happily plead guilty to this charge. What on earth were Scotland expected to do? Take on last year's World Cup runners-up and beat them at their own sophisticated technical game?

Just as Walter Smith got his tactics spot on a year ago, so Alex McLeish did everything right in Paris. James McFadden, rather than Kris Boyd, was perfect for the role of lone striker in such a testing away match. The experience of Graham Alexander came in handy at left back, while Paul Hartley and Barry Ferguson gave bite to the midfield area.

McLeish is proving a dab hand when it comes to substitutions too. On Saturday in the 3-1 win against Lithuania, McFadden and Shaun Maloney were used to marvelous effect in the second half. To say these moves turned the game would be no overstatement.

At the Parc des Princes, he withdrew goalscorer McFadden (who had run his legs off) at precisely the right time with Garry O'Connor. Earlier, the manager was, as it turned out, justified in having confidence in Stephen Pearson, as a replacement for the injured Darren Fletcher.

I've known Alex McLeish for many years. He's meticulous in his preparation and will already be gearing up for the October meetings with Ukraine (at home) and Georgia (away).

By my arithmetic, if Scotland win those two matches - no easy feat - then a draw will suffice in their last match against Italy at Hampden Park in November - also no easy feat!

But enough of looking ahead for now. Let's just enjoy this for a while longer. After the dark years we Scottish football followers endured not so long ago, we're entitled to savour this gloriously unexpected victory against one of the world's most accomplished football teams.

My Norwegian friends have been urging me for a while to revise my opinion about their national team. They feel that the stereotype about Norway being a direct, long-ball side no longer applies.

Well based on what I saw in their 2-2 draw against Greece at the Ulleval Stadium in Oslo, I'm sticking to my views. That's not to be critical of Age Hareide's team. After all, who can argue against playing to your strengths?

The fact is, the Norway of this past week might as well have been managed by Egil 'Drillo' Olsen, that football professor who guided his country to the World Cup finals in 1994 and 1998. Olsen, ironically dismissed as primitive by many in the game, was in fact a firm believer in scientific data.

On Wednesday night, Norway played the kind of direct, high-tempo game, Olsen would have been very proud of. John Arne Riise was everywhere, taking long-throws one minute, hammering home stunning goals the next. Set pieces are at the core of what the Norwegians are all about. It's a bit like pinball on a bigger, wider stage.

What Norway lacked against the European champions in Oslo was guile. They're never going to be regarded as leaders in the subtlety stakes.

Then again, if they suddenly started favouring an intricate short passing game, would they even be in the running for a place in next year's European Championship finals?

I have my doubts.

This is always an invigorating time for us at ESPN. In a few days from now, another season of UEFA Champions League football will be upon us.

Our coverage this season promises to be more extensive than ever. In addition to our match broadcasts, those of you in the USA as well as Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Middle East, will be able to join us for a new look hour-long highlights programme.

Following on from each matchday, Tommy Smyth and Janusz Michallik, my ESPNSoccernet Press Pass chums, will join me in the studio to dissect all the games and voice their opinions. I hope you'll get into the habit of joining us for this new show. It's on ESPN2 on Fridays.

Our live matches on that same channel will both be Portugal v England affairs - FC Porto against Liverpool on Tuesday and Sporting versus Manchester United on Wednesday. We start at 2.30 pm in each case.

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