AT THE end you had to stand and admire the Belgians, not just the players who won this qualifier in a hack canter and moved themselves so close to qualification for Brazil that they can practically see the girls from Ipanema in their mind’s eye, but also their support.
Especially their support, in fact. This was Scotland’s national stadium but it was occupied by the visitors, utterly taken over and filled with their noise and their colour.
Long after Gordon Strachan and his team had exited, Marc Wilmots and his players were still taking the applause of the faithful. They are now five points clear of Croatia with two games left to play. They can start checking maps and making plans. And Scotland? Well, how did we think this one was going to end?
Scotland dug in, no question. They tried to play. They certainly weren’t cautious or fearful, but they were just not good enough. They came up against a golden era last night and they were trailing by just one goal and, theoretically, in with a shout of rescuing a point until the second goal arrived late on. The wonder is that it took so long. That’s something that Belgium might want to address when they come up against the elite of the world game in Brazil, but it was not something that was exposed last night.
There is so much to admire about this Belgian squad, starting with the stand, where Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany sat injured and unmissed , and then the substitutes bench where Romelu Lukaku and Moussa Dembele and Dries Mertens and Mirallas, the scorer of the second, sat, virtually surplus to requirements. It’s saying something when you know as much about many of the Belgian replacements as you do about the Scotland team, but that is the way of it now with Wilmots’ coming force. They are a formidable collection of individuals that are slowly but surely being hewn into a team that could challenge the best in the years to come.
Despite their familiarity, they are still young, still a work in progress. They have cruised to the top of Pool A and will saunter into the finals in Brazil where they are potentially good enough to make a serious noise. They might well be better by then. Their goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, is only 21. Two of their back four are 24 and under. Their wide men. Chelsea’s Kevin de Bruyne and Tottenham’s Nacer Chadli are 22 and 23 years old. Their midfield rocks, the £32m Axel Witsel and the £27.5m Marouane Fellaini are 24 and 25 and their hulking centre-forward, Christian Benteke, a colossus when compared to his impish counterpart, Leigh Griffiths, is 22.
Benteke is a physical specimen. So many of these Belgians are. You have to assume that they’re going to improve. More efficient with the huge amounts of possession they enjoy in games, more ruthless with the chances and half-chances they create. If you can have a criticism it is that they have not as yet developed a ruthless streak. What they are not lacking, however, is confidence and calm authority.
For the first half hour of this game they had the vast amount of territory and possession, they had Chadli causing mischief down the left and making Alan Hutton look precisely what he is - rusty and vulnerable - and had De Bruyne out on the right threatening to make things happen with his pace and devil. But nothing of note happened for them. They didn’t bombard David Marshall. They didn’t slap shots and headers off his crossbar and posts. They didn’t have much on target at all.
They were foiled by some kitchen sink defending from Scotland. Some scrambling, some bodies on the line stuff. Blocks. Tackles. Commitment in abundance. Concentration and discipline. Scotland were working hard. Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew were combatant in the midfield against Fellaini and Witsel. They were toughing it out, but Belgium were unfazed. They just carried on passing, backing themselves to break down the wall sooner or later, which they did.
It was Porto’s Steven Defour who got it, De Bruyne who created it and Steven Whittaker who contributed to it when he gave the ball away. For Belgium, it was a rare glimpse of their clinical side; possession lost cheaply by Scotland, a De Bruyne run and cross and a gorgeous cushioned finish by Defour. What do they say in such moments? It was coming. It was most definitely coming.
They took control not just of the game but of the stadium. The Tartan Army fell quiet for much of the evening, the occasional eruption drowning out the noise of the visitors in the Hampden Gods. At one point, after his team had taken the lead, a Belgian came rushing to the press seats to find out the news from Croatia’s game in Serbia. These guys live in a different world to the rest of us. That fan knew that Belgium were now agonisingly close to having their place in Brazil confirmed. It would have happened last night had Croatians fallen but they won’t have long to wait. They’re on their way right enough. Send us a postcard, my Belgian friend.
The narrative remained the same for much of the night. Belgian possession. Belgian control. Benteke might have a penalty when knocked over by Brown, but it didn’t go his way. De Bruyne took off on a dangerous run but Grant Hanley got his body in front of the ball. Benteke got himself in good position, but his weak shot found the limb of another Scotland defender and went out tamely for a corner that was defended stoutly.
Belgium did enough. Like a cricket team, they almost looked to have declared at 1-0 and it was then, the last 20 minutes, that Strachan’s team came into it, if only briefly. Whittaker got himself into decent position but his shot was a disappointment. Ikechi Anya came off the bench for his debut and immediately scampered down the left and put over a beautiful cross that Shaun Maloney slid in on. The Wigan player wasn’t that far away.
In the love-bombing of their attacking players, one of the things that tends to get overlooked at times is the quality of Belgium’s defence. They’re outstanding. Too good for Scotland. Too good for most teams. In eight games in Group A they have conceded the sum total of two goals. Truthfully, they rarely looked like adding to that number last night.
They were comfortable. More comfortable again when Kevin Mirallas made an appearance and scored a second, Benteke putting him through. They deserved it. Their fans, too. Half an hour after the final whistle many of them had not moved. They filled the Glasgow night with song. For Strachan and his players, there was acceptance and acknowledgment of a mightily long road ahead.