Wales, meet Scotland's key player Ã¢ÂÂ and it's not a Fletcher
After James MorrisonÃ¢ÂÂs fine performance against QPR last weekend, one pundit wondered if Roy Hodgson might call him up to the England squad, especially after working with him for a year at West Brom. The problem, of course, is that Morrison has been capped for Scotland 23 times, and will play against Wales this evening.
We shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt read too much into that mistake, but it sums up the fact that Morrison has slipped under the radar. This is a talented midfielder who has made over 150 Premier League appearances and has started a UEFA Cup final. At 26 heÃ¢ÂÂs hardly a promising youngster any more Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs simply an established Premier League player.
Ã¢ÂÂJamesÃ¢ÂÂ contribution might be unsung by outsiders but I think people at Albion and the supporters appreciate him,Ã¢ÂÂ manager Steve Clarke told the Birmingham Mail this week. Ã¢ÂÂAt a couple of pre-match meetings at previous clubs, James would come up as one of the players youÃ¢ÂÂd need to look after and be wary of qualities.Ã¢ÂÂ Clarke persuaded the West Brom board to offer Morrison a new contract, trying him to the Baggies until 2016.
But it's international football on the agenda for Morrison this weekend, as he travels to the Millennium Stadium to take on Wales. A Battle of Britain always provides interest, but this feels like an especially important game for Scotland in the context of the group.
Craig LeveinÃ¢ÂÂs side have picked up two draws from their two matches so far Ã¢ÂÂ but both have been home fixtures. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre now faced with five away fixtures from their remaining eight matches, including trips to Croatia, Serbia and Belgium. A short trip to Wales, to play a side in something of a crisis at the bottom of Group A, has taken on huge importance.
The return of two key players also makes a difference. First, Darren Fletcher will start in the centre of midfield. He may not be 100% fit, but his tenacity and defensive qualities will greatly help a Scotland side that has recently looked passive in the centre of the pitch. Second, Steven Fletcher is available for selection, and should start up front.
With those two returning, Morrison will be alongside better players and should be able to concentrate on his own role. HeÃ¢ÂÂs not a natural scrapper, and his goalscoring record at international level is poor Ã¢ÂÂ but as one of ScotlandÃ¢ÂÂs better players, he had some responsibility to compensate for the absence of both players. Now, he can play his own role.
But what is his role? For West Brom, heÃ¢ÂÂs shown different playing styles in his previous two matches. In the game against QPR, Morrison impressed by creating three chances and scoring a fine headed goal Ã¢ÂÂ but his all-round passing game was poor, constantly playing overambitious forward balls and conceding possession.
The previous week against Aston Villa, his passing was much more assured. Receiving the ball in two zones Ã¢ÂÂ either in deep, centre-right positions under no pressure, or higher up the pitch between the lines. His pass completion rate was higher, and he managed to create two chances Ã¢ÂÂ which is his par for the season, having created 14 opportunities from his seven matches so far.
Against Wales heÃ¢ÂÂll be asked to help dominate the centre of the pitch Ã¢ÂÂ Wales looked very open between the lines against Serbia in their previous match, and Morrison should be able to find space in advanced, dangerous positions.
Maybe he could chip in with a goal, too. Despite just one goal for Scotland in 23 matches, heÃ¢ÂÂs scored six in his last 22 for West Brom Ã¢ÂÂ previously, goals were the one thing lacking from his game. The return of the Fletchers adds experience and solidity, but in terms of flair, Morrison is ScotlandÃ¢ÂÂs best hope of something special this week.
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