Levein sees huge improvement
Scotland manager Craig Levein believes he and his players are "miles better" than they were at the start of their previous qualifying campaign.
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The Scots kick off their World Cup bid against Serbia at Hampden on Saturday with Levein now in the job for more than two-and-a-half years.
The former Dundee United manager's first campaign started poorly, although they went into the last game with a chance of qualifying.
Scotland drew in Lithuania in their opening European Championship qualifier and scraped a late win at home to Liechtenstein, before Levein's side lost 1-0 in the Czech Republic when he employed his infamous 4-6-0 formation.
The lack of ambition in Prague did not help Levein's popularity but the manager's vision of a solid team with attacking threat came much more into focus during last month's 3-1 friendly win over Australia.
Levein knows now is the time to shine though as Scotland host the Serbs and Balkan neighbours Macedonia in a Hampden double-header.
Levein is not without his selection issues. Gary Caldwell looks likely to play in midfield amid the continued absence of Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and James McArthur through fitness problems. Paul Dixon is set for a debut at left-back after Levein lost five full-backs to injury.
But the former Scotland defender declared himself "more than happy" starting with any of the players in his squad and he feels this campaign can be far better than the third-placed finish that failed to secure a Euro 2012 place.
"This is a tough, tough match," he said. "They have 16 players in the Champions League and a further six in the Europa League, so they are quality players.
"The fortunate thing for me is that our players have improved enormously and our team has improved enormously from where we were two years ago at the start of the previous qualifying campaign.
"I believe wholeheartedly in this group of players and I believe we have the best chance of qualifying for a long time.
"I look at them individually, I look at where they are playing their football, I look at how settled we are, how good the environment is and how well the players get on with each other, and that gives me huge belief.
"The results have steadily improved in the last couple of years, the players' confidence has improved and we are ready and prepared to go."
When asked about his own development since leaving Tannadice in December 2009, Levein said: "I have learned an awful lot in the last couple of years. You don't get an apprenticeship in this game. You get thrown in and you have to deal with it.
"I'm a much better international manager than I was two years ago. I want everyone to know that I took this job desperately wanting to be the manager that took Scotland to a World Cup finals.
"That's why I took the job. There's nobody who will try harder or do more than me to get us there.
"None of the players have been to a World Cup and they are desperate. We are all in a place now where we want one thing and one thing only - that's to qualify."
When asked to detail the main lessons he has learned, Levein said: "I could give you a list - there's a whole raft of things that I have changed, that I didn't do at the start. But it's only because you learn as you go along.
"I stress that I'm ready and the players are ready. We face a tough challenge.
"I'm not going to make any wild predictions but I'm comfortable with where we are.
"I know we are miles better than we were two years ago.
"The opposition seem to be fairly confident as well."
Levein credited stand-in skipper Caldwell, who will win his 50th cap on Saturday, for helping him make his impact on the squad.
"I could sit here for an hour and talk about Gary Caldwell and how much I admire him and what he's done for me since I got the job," Levein said.
"He was in this environment long before I was. He's a hugely important player to the team and is hugely important off the field.
"I very quickly tried to put in a set of values on this group that involve everything Gary Caldwell represents.
"I liken him to Darren Fletcher, as an influence he has to the team on and off the field, and I think you all know what I think of Darren Fletcher."
Levein's comments about Serbia's confidence came after their head coach, former Lazio defender Sinisa Mihajlovic, was quoted as saying his team were better than Scotland.
Captain Branislav Ivanovic was also reportedly disparaging of Scotland's style of football but the Chelsea defender later claimed his comments had been mistranslated.
Levein was coy over the minor controversy.
He said: "My father passed away a long time ago and he gave me a couple of really important bits of advice.
"He said to me: 'When in conflict don't tell anybody what you're going to do to them'."