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Mar 28, 2011

Levein's Scotland on upward curve

It is now 13 long years since Scotland last reached the finals of a major tournament; at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, a tenth meeting with Brazil evoked cherished memories of that France 98' adventure.

The Samba Stars provided the opposition at the opening game of the World Cup finals at the Stade de France, a tournament which ended in agony for Craig Brown's men.

Brazil ran out 2-1 winners that day in Paris as Tom Boyd's own goal separated the teams, before a draw with Norway and a defeat at the hands of Morocco saw the Scots bid au revoir for the last time at a showpiece competition.

Brown's successors - Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish and George Burley - have all tried and failed to guide the Dark Blues back to the finals of a major tournament.

However, there is a growing belief that Craig Levein might just have what it takes to breathe new life into Scotland. The former Cowdenbeath, Hearts, Leicester City, Raith Rovers and Dundee United boss, unveiled as the new national team coach in December 2009, is currently plotting his Euro 2012 qualification mission.

Levein's latest experiment saw his troops go head to head with the brilliant Brazilians in a match that was totally dominated by new star Neymar, who netted both goals in the routine 2-0 victory.

In an exclusive interview with ESPNsoccernet, Scottish Football Association vice-president Alan McRae reveals he's quietly optimistic about the future under Levein.

"There's little doubt we were able to learn a lot from facing Brazil," McRae says. "Craig is trying to build a club mentality at international level and the training camp in Spain ahead of the game was another step along the way to helping him achieve that.

"The team-building exercises will only help in the future and you couldn't have faulted the players in terms of their commitment or effort against Brazil. The manager is also learning more and more about international football but what has impressed me has been his meticulous attention to detail. "The players were well drilled and prepared ahead of the match against Brazil and although ideally we'd have liked to have won the game we've still got to be relatively pleased with our performance. There's no question that there was a gulf in class but testing yourself against the best is one way to help you improve.

"The speed at which they moved the ball around was particularly impressive and it's something we have to take on board and learn from. Neymar also really stood out and looks to have a very big future ahead of him and could be another in the long line of world-class Brazilian players."

Seven of Scotland's starting line-up against Brazil are regular starters with English Premier League clubs, a fact McRae reckons can only help them eventually end their qualification wait. The Dark Blues were also without Darren Fletcher, one of their more influential players, for the Brazil clash so there appears to be genuine quality at Levein's disposal.

"We've probably got the strongest squad of players we've had for a few years now" McRae explains. "We're now in a position where there are two or even three players competing for different starting spots which is very positive.

"However, we're benefitting even more from the fact our players are playing a very high level of club football. We've got several players playing in the English Premier League on a regularly basis while we've got some guys performing well in the Championship.

"Closer to home a number of the other lads are doing well with their Scottish Premier League teams which is all helping the national team. That's not forgetting that we had guys like Darren Fletcher missing so we've now got greater strength and depth to our squad.

"Craig is also now more established in the job and I'd like to think we've got a chance of really doing something when the Euro 2012 qualifiers come round again in September. I managed to quickly speak to him after the game and he was relatively satisfied with how the game panned out. It's another step in the right direction."

Levein will continue to fine tune his squad in the May friendly encounters with Wales and Republic of Ireland before returning to the competitive business of the Euro 2012 qualification campaign later in the year.

But Levein, McRae and the Scotland players can rest easy in the knowledge there's little chance they'll come up against a player of Neymar's class again in the near future.

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