• Scotland held out for most of the first half before Romelu Lukaku scored.
• Scotland’s night got worse when Kevin De Bruyne scored in stoppage time.
As manager of Scotland, Steve Clarke can’t wave his arms and turn water into wine. Coaching is his thing, not miracles.
At Kilmarnock, he gained a reputation for confounding expectation. He came up against Rangers and Celtic teams with superior resources 18 times and only lost six games. His teams were disciplined, organised and hard to break down. Yet Celtic had no Eden Hazard. Rangers had no Kevin De Bruyne. You don’t find too many Romelu Lukaku’s swarming around the Scottish Premiership.
Scotland were beaten and beaten well in the end. Yet expectations of a seriously weakened team being pulverised to a pulp didn’t quite materialise. Clarke’s ability to set up a team with a disciplined, organised plan was evident and when it was all over there were cautious grounds for Scots optimism ahead of two huge games against Russia followed by a Nations League play-off.
In the final ten minutes, they should even have dragged themselves back into the match, Thibaut Courtois denying Ryan Fraser, then Scott McKenna before substitute James Forrest blew a wonderful chance to cause a ripple around the King King Badouin Stadium, where Belgium hadn’t lost for nine years.
“We created chances,” said the Scotland boss. “Unfortunately the first one fell to big Scott then the second chance fell to James and he couldn’t quite get it out of the feet.”
To get anything at all Clarke admitted his side needed a flawless defensive performance and that didn’t quite. The truth is that this exceptional Belgium team will wallop better teams that Scotland. The visitors switched off for one second on the stroke of half-time and that was all it took for Lukaku to score his 47th international goal in 81 appearances.
The Manchester United man claimed another early in the second half because that’s what Belgium do. Clinical and ruthless they’re top of the FIFA world rankings for a reason. The uncontainable De Bruyne deserved his goal at the death.
Yet the Scots had fine performers all over the pitch. Kenny McLean was terrific in midfield, keeper David Marshall justified his return to the fold.
Pitching a 21-year-old Greig Taylor in for his international debut as a late replacement for injured captain Andrew Robertson at the home of the world’s top-ranked international team could have ended in disaster. Yet the kid showed remarkable confidence and composure throughout.
“Overall my impression is that what I saw over the ten days was a really good group of players are really committed to their country,” added Clarke. “They want to get better, they want to improve.
“We were competitive in that game tonight against the best team in the world, ranked number one. So there were a lot of positives but obviously, we are professional and we don’t like to lose.”
The blunt truth is that Belgium play a different sport. They’re a different class.
When the nations met in a friendly at Hampden last year, the Red Devils spanking four past the home team without reply. The last time Scotland beat them was 1987 and since Jimmy Delaney scored twice in a 2-2 draw in Glasgow in 1946 the Scots have now won four of the 19 games between the teams - losing 12. In the last four games the Belgians hadn’t conceded a goal and the fact that should have changed here is a slightly painful business.
The Scots should have scored after just nine minutes. An unlikely goal hero against Cyprus on Saturday Oli Burke was the obvious man to start here.
Where he finished off Cyprus with aplomb he dragged a flicked Stuart Armstrong ball into space across the face of goal when he should just have thumped it.
The Belgians— as expected—crafted a raft of gilt-edged first-half chances. Hazard and De Bruyne was at the heart of everything, the Real Madrid bound maestro producing a wonderful piece of football in 19 minutes to collect a Vincent Kompany piercing pass and torment Scotland before playing a wonderful pass towards De Bruyne, the Man City striker’s shot tipped brilliantly over the bar by David Marshall.
It’s now 15 years since Marshall produced a stunning individual display for Celtic in Barcelona. At times this felt reminiscent of a memorable 0-0 draw in the Nous Camp. He had to react quickly to prevent a dipping rocket of an effort from the touchline by de Bruyne nestling in the top corner. An Axel Witsel header from a corner was clawed away.
Young Taylor was caught out just once when Johnny Russell’s hospital pass put him in trouble on the edge of his own area. Marshall was beaten that time, yet De Bruyne’s strike fizzed wide of the upright.
Were Scotland riding their luck? Absolutely. Yet the benefits of organisation and discipline seemed likely to carry them to half-time unscathed until they switched off once. That was all it took. The board was going up at the end of the first half when Scott McTominay looked to have snuffed out more darting Hazard play close to the byline. The Manchester United man thought the ball was going out of play, Hazard had other ideas - offered too much space to chip a delightful ball towards the back post for Lukaku - McTominay’s Manchester United teammate - to crane his neck and bury the header.
Belgium’s second goal came in 57 minutes. Once again Lukaku’s instincts in front of goal were deadly. If living with Hazard was tricky, living with De Bruyne was impossible.
The number seven made space to thud a fizzing low shot at goal from the edge of the area. Marshall threw himself low to push the ball out, but the Manchester United striker reacted quicker than Kilmarnock’s Taylor and the game was pretty much over. At that point, you feared for Scotland. The threat of a hammering loomed. Yet they hung in there and should have scored once, possibly even twice.
With eleven minutes to play substitute Fraser cut in from the left and curled a fine effort towards the top corner, Courtois making a spectacular save. The Scots then blew an outstanding double five minutes from time when Fraser’s surging run sent the unlikely figure of Scott McKenna through on goal.
The Aberdeen defender’s sliding effort was blocked by Courtois, James Forrest having all the time in the world to score what looked like a certain goal before fatal hesitation gave Belgium’s defence the time they needed to recover. The difference between the two sides was summed up as the clock struck 90 minutes. As Belgium laid siege to Scotland’s goal in search of a third Callum McGregor was caught in possession by Witsel and De Bruyne claimed the strike his overall display deserved, hammering an 18 yard strike low into the bottom corner.