SCOTLAND legend Alan Rough has told how Craig Levein's men must hit the ground running if they are to have any chance of making it to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Rough, an SFA Hall of Fame entrant and veteran of three World Cups, is keen to see Scotland make it to the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1998.
And he believes the key to making it to Brazil will lie in building up momentum, confidence and drive from a winning start. Levein has taken a look at Croatia at Euro 2012 – and they make daunting opponents.
Scotland do not face the Croats and former Rangers striker Nikica Jelavic until next year, but later this year they will line up against Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Belgium. And these are the games that Rough says could make or break the ambitions of reaching Brazil.
"Too often we have left it too late before we start to produce the goods," he said.
"Craig has said on a number of occasions that he believes this is the strongest group of players who have been together for some time in a Scotland squad – well now is the time to show that.
"We had a disaster against the USA at the end of May. You can argue that there were mitigating factors, but at the end of the day we can't afford to gift possession and goals the way we did that night.
"The message needs to be hammered home that each of these games that start off the World Cup campaign are massive.
"Croatia have looked like a really strong side – they are organised and have players who can hurt you – but my advice would be to forget about them for now.
While Rough played during a golden age for Scottish football with the names of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness resonating throughout European football, there are very few household names within the Scotland dressing room now.
That is a concern given the fact that any team who makes it to a major international tournament tends to boast a spine of players who ply their trade in the top leagues around the world.
Much weight has rested on the shoulders of Old Trafford midfielder Darren Fletcher who, of course, is currently out of the game as he battles the debilitating condition of colitis.
Jordan Rhodes is the latest young player to find his name in the headlines, and Rough has warned against expecting too much from a player who has yet to prove himself at the top level.
He said: "I think that the lad has great potential, but you cannot throw him into World Cup qualifying games and expect him to hit the ground running.
"Playing at the level of senior international football is a different environment altogether and the demands are phenomenal. You need to be allowed time to get used to that pace and that level.
"I've been surprised so far that no-one has jumped in for Rhodes, although I'm sure that before the end of the summer that will have changed."
And Rough has also told the players who will form the core of Levein's squad as they challenge for a place at football's greatest tournament to seize the chance they have been given.
Having played at three World Cups, Rough has told them that the experience is incomparable to anything else they will go through in their club careers.
"The pomp and ceremony, the greatness of the occasion and the fact you are part of something so huge, is just incredible," recalled the former Partick Thistle, Celtic and Hibs keeper.
"We had guys in the Scotland squad who were bossing Europe with Liverpool – but even they were wowed by the World Cup experience.
"We need players who have growing reputations with Scotland to really prove their worth now – players like Scott Brown, Charlie Adam, Steven Naismith and James Forrest.
"Scotland need big, big performances from them. I also think that from the beginning we need a settled back four. The manager needs to decide on his strongest defence – and then stick with it.
"In the middle of a qualifying campaign is not the time to start chopping and changing and trying to work that out.
"Getting the foundations right is the only for Scotland to build up to better things."