Proud Scot and ESPN Soccernet Press Pass host Derek Rae visited Glasgow to speak to Scotland manager Alex McLeish ahead of his team's crucial Euro 2008 qualifier with Italy.The Tartan Army - and Derek of course - are hoping that McLeish's team can get the win at Hampden Park, where the interview took place, to take their place in Austria and Switzerland next summer.
Derek Rae: Alex, as we look around Hampden Park, we look forward to the Italy game and we wonder what sort of atmosphere we're going to have. I think we know we full well, it's going to be, in your words, rocking.
Alex McLeish: Yes, well if it's anything to go by the last couple of games here at Hampden, then I think you can probably double that atmosphere for the Italy game. It's a cup final for Scotland, no doubt about it.
AM: Well, it's a fantastic tribute to us that people are saying it's a missed opportunity because instead of at the outset at the start of the tournament. The people were saying it's the 'Group of Death', we have no chance, we have absolutely no chance of overcoming Ukraine, France and Italy, and we now find ourselves one game away from qualification, which is an amazing achievement. But it's a tribute that people are actually saying, we could have had it sewn up by now, and that shows how well we've done in that particular group phase. The Georgian game was a setback, no doubt about it. We were missing first choice players, that can hurt any team, any team in the world. The players who came in did really well, and no criticism of them at all, but it did disrupt the momentum. Players are a little bit tired, they've been through Champions League games recently, it's a wee bit of mental fatigue as well as physical, the Georgians were reasonably fresh, and a new young team emerging there, so a credit to them. They did well but I've got to say for us to be facing Italy in the last game, for a place in the finals is an amazing achievement and I'm sure that every Scot in the world would have bitten their hand off for that opportunity.
DR: I was interested in reading what James McFadden had to say before the Ukraine game and also before the Georgia game. And it wasn't well, we have to be cautious and we might get the right result. He was basically saying we are Scotland, and we believe we can beat top opposition, and of course Italy are top opposition.
AM: World champions...a great side, they have great experience of going away and shutting up shop and coming away with whatever they require in certain games, but I don't know if there's been too many times that they've had to come and shut out a team in their very last game, away from home, in front of our partisan crowd. I'm not sure, there'll probably be examples of that in the Italian football history but we've got to test them, and that's a phenomenal challenge for us, but it's also a big challenge for Italy. I don't think they'll relish coming here, playing in front of the Hampden crowd.
DR: Certainly France didn't relish it, Ukraine didn't relish it either. I wonder if this is a different sort of challenge. The Italians by nature like to sit in, and Scotland have had most success against supposedly better opposition when they've been the team sitting back, waiting for the opposition to make mistakes.
AM: Yeah, we did that against France, we did it against France away from home as well, so the double-header against France worked with those tactics. We know that we have to be careful against Italy, but we also know we have to go for a win, and if we'd won in Georgia, we'd have to play for a draw against Italy, and then Italy would have to come and beat us. Now I'm not so sure that we're particularly great playing for a draw, and for me that would probably be an agonizing 90 minutes, sitting, playing out, try to play for a draw. I'm not saying that it's not going to be a tough 90 minutes anyway. But we never said there was going to be any guarantees, and never is and never was, but at the same time, we have an enormous opportunity and one that some of the lads on the team may never get again.
DR: It must help the Scotland manager when you have the two foremost clubs in Scotland, Rangers and Celtic, not only in the Champions League, but prospering in the Champions League as we speak, and with a Scottish core in each case.
AM: Well, that helps as well, that the Old Firm are playing at a very high level. Sometimes it comes with a cost, as we found out in Georgia when the players arrived after a long flight after a tremendous performance against Ukraine, I could sense a little bit of tiredness amongst them, even had to keep my distance after having had the flu for a couple of days. I could sense a wee bit of tiredness in them - we had four and forced changes and I think it was a result of playing loads of Champions League games, playing at such an intensity, and the Tuesday and the Saturday, the Wednesday and the Saturday, and then international football and then domestic and then back to the Champions League, it really takes it toll. And hopefully the lads can make one massive final effort.
AM: Yeah well, when I played for the Scottish national team, we qualified for three World Cup finals and the European Championships. I was involved in those and there was subsequent World Cup qualification and subsequent European Championship qualification when I stopped playing. And I've got to say there was no group in all those years I played as hard as this one. We've got to look at the bigger picture, beyond the Italy game, and for Scotland to be competing at the top group, if we don't qualify for this Euro Championship finals, we have made great strides, because we've gone up in the rankings and we've raised the coefficient and it will help us in terms of the World Cup draw. So out of failing to qualify, we do get some reward. But let me tell you, we plan to qualify.
Catch the full interview on Thursday's ESPN Soccernet Press Pass or in our Motion player.