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By ESPN Staff

Unlucky Scots give England food for thought

There will be a sense of what might have been as Scotland's football fans ponder their biennial dilemma: to support England in a major tournament or all of their opponents? However, this time, those north of the border could be excused a touch of bitterness as the Euro 2008 tournament kicks off.

Assertions that 'it should have been us' are grounded in more than just partiality. And yet while England, should they get a draw against Croatia on Wednesday, will be in Switzerland and Austria in the summer, the contrasts with their neighbours stretch beyond that.

For England's underachievers do not deserve to be there, whereas Scotland's overachievers do. England's qualifying group, as the departing Sven-Goran Eriksson was able to grin, was comparatively simple. Scotland's more than merited the clich├ęd title of 'the Group of Death' and, even if it was predictable that they would eventually be one of the fatalities, the manner of their demise was particularly cruel.

Indeed, an injury-time goal from Israel's Omer Golan could ensure England's place just as, an hour before, an added-time strike by Italy's Christian Panucci ended Scotland's chances. While England's stiffest opposition came from a team, in Croatia, whose World Cup was little less unimpressive than their own, Scotland were paired with both World Cup finalists and, in Ukraine, a third quarter-finalist.

For England, the highlight of this qualifying campaign arguably did not involve any of their players. Rather, it was Golan's goal for Israel against Russia. Selecting a solitary highlight from the Scottish campaign could provoke a heated debate, with James McFadden's magnificent winner in Paris probably getting the vote.

There are also many reasons to be positive when you consider any element of their double over France, McFadden's spectacular strike against Ukraine, many outstanding Craig Gordon saves, or the emergence of Scott Brown and Alan Hutton.

Thus far, England have only achieved one genuinely good result, beating Russia at Wembley. Scotland, in comparison, overcame Ukraine, won in Lithuania and twice took their supporters into the realms of disbelief by defeating World Cup runners-up France.

On the other side of the equation, four substandard results - defeats to Russia and Croatia and draws with Macedonia and Israel - pockmarked the English campaign, whereas only Scotland's setback in Georgia represented a comparative failure.

England have only had one manager, the mediocre Steve McClaren, whose job, endangered by his constant bungling, has seemingly been saved by the two little-known Israelis who struck on Saturday. Scotland have had two, with Walter Smith responsible for the initial revival in their fortunes and the admirable Alex McLeish proving a worthy successor. Even the SFA, with back-to-back excellent appointments, come out of the qualifying campaign with much more credit than their English counterparts.

But while the Scots covet England's probable place in Switzerland and Austria, envious glances should be directed north of the border. In terms of talent, perhaps only the excellent Gordon would make a select 11 from the two countries; yet, on the basis of their form in their respective campaigns, the team would be comprised almost entirely of Scots.

Moreover, first under Smith and latterly McLeish, Scotland have displayed the qualities that, all too frequently, England lack: teamwork, cohesion and an unquenchable spirit, allied with an understanding of each individual's duties and a sense of togetherness that was shared with their supporters.

While the Scots had a legitimate grievance in the award of the free kick that preceded Christian Panucci's winner, their campaign has been notable for an estimable refusal to make excuses. The England football team, however, have a ready supply of them, with each injury provoking extensive whingeing.

Yet with a deeper pool of players, they did not, as Scotland were required to do, field a 35-year-old lower-division right-back on the left of their defence. Burnley's Graham Alexander has never played a top-flight game in his lengthy career, yet he helped Scotland keep two clean sheets against France. And despite the greater merits of the individuals at their disposal, it is inconceivable that England could have overcome the World Cup runners-up once, let alone twice.

Indeed, England have become a side where weaknesses are glaringly apparent. Scotland, despite a lack of pace in the centre of defence, natural wingers or world-class strikers, are one where the team become greater than the sum of its parts, camouflaging players' limitations with their collective efforts.

While England's multimillionaires have alienated their public to the extent that the booing aimed at Frank Lampard is indicative of a wider dislike of their players, Scotland have unearthed, in McFadden, a bona fide national hero.

As England, in desperation for a saviour, made the regressive move of recalling David Beckham, Scotland have seamlessly integrated younger players such as Brown, Hutton, Kris Boyd and Stephen McManus. Their veterans are not preoccupied with thoughts of a 100th cap or a 50th goal but, like the 37-year-old David Weir, but are valiant servants focused solely on securing Scotland victories.

A summer in the Alps would have been a deserved end to a distinguished career for him, but Scotland have a tradition of heroic but premature exits. And the country that has never reached the second stage of an international tournament has now been eliminated in an unkind manner again.

However, if England continue their recent habits of under-whelming performances and complacent comments, it is not merely the Scots who may end up lamenting that their neighbours, rather than them, are at a major competition.

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