x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Celtic connection is failing for the Brazil World Cup

Two games in, Wales and Scotland have displayed another form of consistency. Levein's men have drawn both games. Chris Coleman's have lost both.

Scotland coach has Steven Fletcher, left, and captain Darren Fletcher at his disposal.
Scotland coach has Steven Fletcher, left, and captain Darren Fletcher at his disposal.

As the quest to qualify for the World Cup continues in four continents today, if thoughts across the planet turn to Brazil, it will not be surprising.

For two countries, in particular, it has a special resonance. Brazil are a reminder of a past that seems increasingly distant.

The last World Cup Finals game Wales played- to date and, some might say, ever - was against Brazil, a 1958 quarter-final notable for a brace of goals from a precocious teenager named Pele.

Scotland's last World Cup, during a spell when they qualified six times out of seven, began with a 2-1 defeat to Brazil in the Stade de France in 1998.

Drawn in perhaps the most open group in Europe, along with Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, the Celtic cousins began with optimism.

Wales were the biggest risers in Fifa's world rankings during 2011. The Scotland manager Craig Levein pronounced his side capable of winning all 10 games.

Two games in, Wales and Scotland have displayed another form of consistency. Levein's men have drawn both games. Chris Coleman's have lost both.

Their 6-1 defeat in Serbia last month was their biggest thrashing since 1996.

The manager branded their defending "criminal" afterwards, but his own record is under scrutiny. So is Levein's.

Both are troubled. Coleman's reign is only five games old, and he was not really in charge for the first of those.

The problem is that Wales have scored only once in their two defeats, and Gareth Bale's goal in Serbia was of scant consolation.

While giving Coleman a vote of confidence, the Welsh FA chief executive Jonathan Ford set a target for the double header of tonight's game with the Scots and Tuesday's trip to Croatia.

"Some points on the board is a bit of a must in my mind," he said.

Scotland need several to ease the mounting pressure on Levein. The manager has only won three of his last 10 competitive games: two were against Liechtenstein and the other against Lithuania. It is not the sort of record to inspire confidence.

Nor does his style of football help. The image of Levein as a defensive man with a defensive style has spread ever since, infamously, he chose a striker-less side in the Czech Republic two years ago. He was criticised, too, for only fielding one attacker at home to Macedonia and for selecting the ageing and slowing workhorse Kenny Miller as that lone striker.

Now he has an alternative who has become a cause celebre. Steven Fletcher is the English Premier League's reigning player of the month but the Sunderland striker has not played for his country for two years after criticising the manager and then sending a text message rejecting an international call-up.

If Fletcher was to blame then, however, Levein's stubbornness has been evident since.

"I regret that, at the time, I didn't do something about it," said the manager, who has had to backtrack because of Scotland's struggle to score.

Wales, too, are changing tack. Coleman inherited the job after the sudden death of Gary Speed. Continuity was his way of honouring his friend as well as a common-sense approach after Wales' dramatic improvement under their former captain. With a sudden slide, however, change has become necessary.

Speed had made Aaron Ramsey Wales' youngest captain. Coleman has now given the armband to the more experienced Ashley Williams. "Aaron's 21 and I think he was feeling the pressure," Coleman said. "Ashley's vocal. We need to go in another direction because what we've been doing hasn't been working."

His task is rendered all the harder by absentees. Wales have a small talent pool and are without Craig Bellamy, Neil Taylor and James Collins.

In addition, Bale has missed training. "With everyone fit, they are a formidable-looking side," said Levein, who has a habit of talking up opponents.

He has his captain Darren Fletcher available for the first time in 11 months but travelled south with a warning from the Wales goalkeeper Jason Brown.

"Is it win or bust for both of us? Definitely," said the Aberdeen player. "Craig Levein is under a lot of pressure."

It is increased by the precedents. Wales finished off the two least successful managers in Scotland's recent past, Berti Vogts and George Burley.

Talk of Brazil brings history to mind, and history could repeat itself.

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