FORMER Scotland coach Craig Levein says it was easier to pinpoint weaknesses to exploit against the reigning World and European champions Spain than it was against Belgium.
But he still believes that Gordon Strachan’s men are capable of beating the Red Devils at Hampden on Friday.
“It’ll be a hard game. Belgium are a really good side. [Vincent] Kompany’s out, which is a bonus, but they’re still really, really strong,” Levein said at Tynecastle this week, where he was urging Hearts fans to get behind the Foundation of Hearts and pledge financial support to the group working to seize control of their club.
He added: “They [Belgium] were the most difficult team because they had so many attacking options, and their centre backs were outstanding. They could be left on their own whereas, even playing against Spain, I felt, if we got it right, we could get at their centre-backs. We worked really hard on diagonals, peeling off the second centre-back into the space the full back vacated and you can do that with [Carles] Puyol but you can’t do that with Belgium because their centre-backs are so quick.
“That, for me, was the area of the pitch they were hard to get at and even with Kompany out, they’re still going to be strong.”
Defeat to Belgium marked the end of Levein’s reign, with the axe falling shortly after a 2-0 loss in Brussels last October. But he still believes the Scottish players can turn things around this week.
“[In that game] we’d hoped to try to play little short passes in front of them but we never got going, we spent most of our time defending. We lasted until 70-odd minutes but the goalie had to make some great saves. It was a hard shift.
“You can always play better. But for us to win we need to be at the top of our game and they need to be below their best. There’s no shame in that – that’s how underdogs win football games.
“If they turn up at the top of their game with their best players on fire, it’ll be a long night.”
One of the stars the home side will need to shackle is Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke. “It’s a tough order but it’s one Grant Hanley will relish. He’s as fierce as they come but Benteke has a bit of nous about him,” said Levein.
“We all know expectations climbed after the Croatia game and the England game didn’t do much to dampen them because it was a really decent performance. But then you look at losing a couple of goals from set pieces and think of Benteke in there.
“Belgium are a good team – you look through their squad and see where they’re all playing. Guys like [Eden] Hazard, [Marouane] Fellaini, they’re top, top players. When you’re looking at them you think ‘I need to play a big centre-back because they have Benteke’ but then you need pace and then you need experience.
“Sometimes they place little short sharp passes through you and sometimes they throw the ball in the box. They mix it up, which is why I thought they were the best [in the Scots’ World Cup qualifying group].
“They’re a young team so it’s hard to project where they’ll go but the weakness I found in the Spain team, I couldn’t find in Belgium’s. But Scotland are capable of beating them if things go our way. You see that after going to Croatia. I thought that trip would be as hard as anything but things went our way. We defended properly, we didn’t make any mistakes, we took a chance when it came our way and they looked like they couldn’t get it going on the night. I would take all of that against Belgium. We can’t get away with making mistakes, with other teams being at the top of their game. We have some kind of momentum, though, thanks to victory over Croatia and a laudable performance against England.”