Saturday sees Scotland return to Hampden to take on Group F opponents Lithuania in qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A 5-1 win, away to Malta, in their opening game left Scotland top of their group following the first round of fixtures.
Scotland and Lithuania aren’t strangers to each other meeting in qualification campaigns on several occasions, twice opening campaigns with 0-0 draws.
However the most memorable of meetings came in 2007 where Scotland were well in the mix to qualify for Euro 2008. Lithuania traveled to Glasgow hoping to halt any momentum, and they almost did. Scotland ran out 3-1 winners that day but the game will be remembered for – then Hearts winger – Saulius Mikoliūnas – infamously dived to win his side a penalty, which was converted to make the score 1-1 at the time. The Lithuanian’s reputation in Scottish football never recovered as he was constantly called up on dives domestically, often unfairly.
So what do Scotland need to focus on heading into Saturday’s encounter?
Lithuania have always came across as a relatively unknown entity when it comes to international football. They have never qualified for a major tournament post the separation of the Soviet Union, which they were a member of. In the qualification for Euro 2016 they only managed three wins, two of which came against San Marino and the other Estonia. However they did manage to secure a 2-2 draw against Slovenia in their group opener at home which shows they aren’t to be underestimated.
The man Scotland will have to look out for is 25 year old striker Fiodor Černych who captains the side. With goals in three of his last four internationals, he’ll be the player that Lithuania will turn to produce some quality.
So with Lithuania’s star man being a forward the onus will be on presumably either Russell Martin or Grant Hanley to keep tabs on him and look to limit him to any chances.
Up the other side of the pitch, Lithuania’s defence has kept itself quite tight as of late managing a 0-0 draw in a friendly with Poland in June, they have also only conceded more than one goal on two occasions this year proving that keeping out goals is definitely their stronger side to the game. Although going by the attacking prowess Scotland showed against Malta (Ok I know it was only Malta) they could be in for some problems.
For Scotland starting Griffiths is a must. With his pace straight up front along with Ritchie and Burke providing crosses for him on either side of him should cause most defences problems. Also the creativity behind them of Snodgrass who should play in the number 10 role will be crucial. Getting him on the ball will be vital for Scotland’s creative play which means its important for the wingers to provide as much width as possible allowing Snodgrass time and space to work in. The roles of McArthur and Darren Fletcher in the holding roles are vitally as important to give equally protect the defence and also free up the defensive duties of players like Snodgrass and Ritchie so they can go and get on the ball without worrying about their defensive duties.
Manager Gordon Strachan has already came out and said that this isn’t a must win game which is not the best mind set to go out an give your players. It almost takes the pressure of them by saying essentially “It’s alright if we don’t win”. In international football your home games are all must win especially when it comes to qualifying for a major tournament. So Strachan’s already made a crucial mistake for Saturday and probably given the Lithuanian players some encouragement to go on and take the game to Scotland.
For his team selection as I have mentioned above the front four should really pick itself with Griffiths, Ritchie, Snodgrass and Burke playing at the top of a 4-2-3-1. Like the front four the goalkeeper is also a given (No pun intended) with David Marshall starting between the sticks. As for the defence, the four that played out in Malta will likely retain their places with Paterson, Martin, Hanley and Robertson making up those spots and as mentioned earlier Fletcher and McArthur are desperately needed for the holding midfield roles. Lets just hope Strachan gets it right on Saturday.
By Rory West