Scotland manager George Burley could hand Stephen McManus the captain's armband for their must-win 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against FYR Macedonia on Saturday despite the Celtic defender not having played a competitive match in four months.
The centre-half has been missing since he limped out of Celtic's match against Aberdeen on 2 May with a knee injury which needed surgery. The 26-year-old has yet to feature in the Hoops first-team this season after sitting out the club's pre-season preparations.
Burley's defensive options are limited for the Group 9 clash against FYR Macedonia and Wednesday's trip to runaway group winners the Netherlands, who have already qualified for the finals with a 100 per cent record so far. Gary Caldwell is suspended after his sending off in Norway and his brother Steven is missing from the squad through injury meaning Burley is poised to partner McManus with the recalled Rangers captain David Weir.
They will be given the difficult job of trying to contain the attacking threat of striker Goran Pandev. The Lazio forward has scored 17 goals in 47 internationals, including two against European champions Spain in a friendly last month, and should prove a handful as FYR Macedonia aim to add a Hampden win to their 1-0 win over the Scots in Skopje.
The Scots have struggled through their qualifying campaign and boss Burley has come in for plenty of criticism since Scotland's heavy 4-0 defeat in Norway last month which left the team in third place in Group 9 behind FYR Macedonia on goal difference. It means the Scots almost certainly have to pick up six points from their final two games if they are to have any chance of claiming the runners-up spot in the section.
Burley's assistant Terry Butcher, who captained England to the 1990 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, says a Scotland win on Saturday would be his finest moment in football. "I'm not being flippant, but after everything we have gone through in this campaign, this means as much to me now as any game I ever played in," Butcher said.
"Yes, just as much as a World Cup semi-final. You have to look at the current circumstances and I would say nothing would give me more pleasure than seeing Scotland win on Saturday. I'm gutted for George in terms of the criticism. I wouldn't have dealt with it very well. I would have had the critics by their throats. But that's not the way George is. He lives for football, sees it the way he wants and disregards everything else. He just focuses on the job.
Rangers striker Kenny Miller, who looks certain to start against FYR Macedonia, says there can be no excuses if the Scots fail to win. "We've got to beat Macedonia. If we don't, we can kiss goodbye to any hope we've got," he said.
"There is no way we can expect to do anything other than win on Saturday. If we take care of that game, then next Wednesday against the Dutch takes care of itself. There is no reason why we shouldn't beat Macedonia. We are a better team than them and we are at home with all of our fans behind us. This time, there are no excuses. If we don't win on Saturday we can't start moaning about things."
Aberdeen goalkeeper Jamie Langfield has been drafted into the Scotland squad after Neil Alexander suffered a slight knock in training. The Rangers keeper's injury is not thought to be serious but won't be risked for the FYR Macedonia game and will remain part of the squad before being reassessed on Sunday.