SCOTLAND Under 19s defender John Souttar has launched an impassioned defence of under-fire boss Ricky Sbragia and insisted his record at developing top players like Barcelona's Gerard Pique shows he has nothing to prove.

The young Scots are on the brink of qualifying for the European Championships Finals in Greece in July after this draw with the Italians in the Elite Round on Saturday morning, which followed a win last week over hosts Austria.

A win tomorrow against Croatia would seal a shock first qualification for nine years and would vindicate Sbragia, after he was on the end of some hefty criticism for his exclusion of Real Madrid talent Jack Harper.

And Dundee United defender Souttar, who was excellent in Lindabrunn against the Azzurri, insists the critics should examine the former Sunderland manager and Manchester United coach's record more closely.

Souttar said: "None of us took any notice of what has been said. People outside the dressing room don't know Ricky as a guy, but there's a massive amount of respect for him within the group.

"For me especially, he brought through my idol - Gerard Pique at Manchester United. He's gone on to play for Barcelona and achieve everything there is to achieve. So if he can bring guys like that through the system you have to respect him.

"All the boys love working with him. You can see it out there. The boys want to fight for him. Everyone knows what's happened and we want to prove them all wrong. He had me in the Under-19s as a 16-year-old.

"I don't think what happened bothers him and he's been in the game for long enough to know there will be stories. I've only been in the game for three years and I know that. People are going to talk on the outside, but the most important thing is that the 18 of us know that he believes in us.

"I don't know where the long ball stuff has come from because he has always encouraged me to play football from the back. Ryan Gauld played last year and he's brought through Giuseppe Rossi too. He gives me the freedom to play football.

"He protects us. We went to Belgium in this tournament two years ago and we lost 5-1. He took the slagging, but we were horrendous. He takes the pressure off the boys, unlike some managers who pile it on young players."

And Souttar - who marshalled the Italian kids from the likes of Inter Milan and Roma superbly - now believes the young Scots will make it to the Finals, after they were written off.

He said: "We're always talked about as underdogs and weren't even mentioned going into the tournament. I'm sure the Italians would have laughed us off and not given us any consideration. So I think us going out there and holding our own is good for the country.

"There's definitely a siege mentality within the group. It's a very tight group. If we see someone's in trouble someone will be there to help out.

"We've given ourselves a great opportunity to qualify, which hasn't been the case in previous years. Maybe in previous times we had talented individuals without really being a team. This year we're a team. We have a good chance.

"We've beaten Austria, who beat Germany 5-1. So that was a massive result for us. We're going up against boys who are playing for teams like Real Madrid and Roma. Even against Italy, I thought we created the clearer cut chances and were more likely to win the game. So that's credit to the boys and the staff."