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Football: Donadoni knows we are Eck of threat to him now.

Byline: ANDY WALKER

FORGET about the performance - what a marvellous three points yesterday in Big Eck's debut as Scotland boss.

The players now travel to Bari for Wednesday's game against the World Champions on a high, knowing that they're serious contenders for a place at Euro 2008.

More importantly, we're now five points ahead of Italy. Azzurri boss Roberto Donadoni was recently quoted as saying he didn't know too much about Alex McLeish or his team. Now he will realise we're a real threat.

The spine of Eck's team yesterday had the Old Firm running through it with Davie Weir and Stephen McManus strong at the back, Paul Hartley and Barry Ferguson working well together in midfield and the front two of Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller threatening.

Changes will undoubtedly be made for Bari though and Eck will need to think long and hard before picking the team.

I would persevere with Weir and McManus in the heart of defence.

I realise Steven Pressley is free from suspension but the experience of Weir (he earned his 53rd cap yesterday) and the strength of McManus was a good combination and doesn't deserve to be broken up.

In midfield Ferguson and Hartley will have key roles to play. The onus will probably be on a more defensive shift rather than trying to force the play like they did yesterday.

Gary Teale provided a magnificent cross for Boyd's stunning opening goal yesterday but the energy of Hibs midfielder Scott Brown might be a better option in Bari.

As always who is picked to play up front will be a huge talking point for the Tartan Army.

Miller has the experience - 30 caps now and nine goals - and has ploughed a lone furrow in many successful away games.

He made a name for himself in games against Italy at home and Norway and Lithuania away when old boss Walter Smith asked him to put in a terrific amount of effort.

In many quarters, Celtic star Miller is regarded as Scotland's No.1 striker.

Let me make a case for Boyd.

He gets a ridiculous amount of criticism for what he can't do but the one thing he does better than anyone is putting the ball in the net.

Boyd's scoring record should see him start ahead of his rivals just now.

They say he doesn't have a touch and lacks mobility and pace.

Miller also doesn't have a great touch but is quick and more mobile.

However, as far as goals scored are concerned there's only one winner.

On this most important issue Boyd wins hands down.

He will finish as the SPL's top scorer this term - despite a poor Rangers season - and that's why he deserves a starting slot on Wednesday.

No matter how much we're up against it in Bari, Scotland will get chances against Italy, maybe two or three really good ones over the course of the 90 minutes.

My money would be on predator Boyd to put one of those away before Miller - or any other Scottish striker at the moment.

No one expects us to get anything against the World Champions.

After surprising everyone with their remarkable World Cup win in Germany last summer, boss Marcello Lippi chose to leave on a high.

Donadoni took over and results have been patchy under him.

The former Milan midfielder was at Hampden yesterday to see us in the flesh - and you wonder what he made of the new-look Scotland team under McLeish.

After watching the battling win over Georgia he will have learned we're a dogged and determined side rather than an inspiring one.

But what do we know about him?

Like McLeish and his assistant Roy Aitken, Donadoni served his country with distinction, earning 63 caps.

He also won Serie A titles five times with AC Milan.

And he landed three European Cups when Milan dominated Europe in the early 90s. So he has been a class act and knows what it takes to win at the highest level. He must have balls as well because anyone taking over Italy at this time has only one way to go-down.

It has been a sluggish start to Group B from Italy with just seven points from four games.

And the last thing they would've expected at this stage of the campaign is to sit five points adrift of the predictable Scots.

The cushion we have puts them under more pressure to get all three points in Bari - and we can use that to our advantage.

Have we really got any chance of taking at least a point in the World Champions' own backyard?

Lithuania have already earned a draw on Italian soil so that gives us plenty of hope.

The Scotland players are at their best when asked to defend in numbers. They will happily do that against players with superior levels of skill and ability.

What we can do is make it hard for the Azzurri.

We're good at nullifying the threat of teams but we're not quite at the level where we can go man for man and play adventurous football.

So, let's be honest. Anything we get from Italy is a bonus. We're simply not at a level where we can expect to show the quality needed to beat such a talented side.

We can only marvel at the sight of World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, Marco Materazzi, Andrea Pirlo, Rino Gattuso, Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino.

But we expected more from some of these players when AC Milan played Celtic in Europe recently and they were a let down.

Who knows? This might be a good time to play the Italians.

CAPTION(S):

McManus: Solid show; Brown: Loads of energy
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 25, 2007
Words:954
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