SCOTLAND manager Gordon Strachan sought to accentuate the positives last night after watching the progress identified in the recent months of his reign halted by a formidable Belgium side at Hampden Park.
Marc Wilmots’ exciting side have all but confirmed their qualification for the World Cup finals after the 2-0 victory. Scotland, meanwhile, have returned to the bottom of Group A after Macedonia’s victory over Wales earlier in the evening.
It proved a punishing night for Scotland. A first half goal from Steven Defour and a second from substitute Kevin Mirallas three minutes from the end secured the win for the visitors, who were cheered on by over 7,000 delirious fans. The Belgians celebrated wildly at the end as they anticipated an adventure in Brazil, where they are expected to mount a challenge for the World Cup.
“They are the best team we have played,” said Strachan. “In international football that is one of the best teams I have seen – either played or managed against.”
Strachan described it as a “flyweight versus heavyweight” clash, with reference to the obvious physical advantage enjoyed by the visitors over Scotland.
“Our hearts are as big as them,” noted Strachan. However, he admitted there was not much Scotland can do about the physical difference between the teams.
“What do we do about genetics?” he asked. “You stand in the tunnel and look at their size, and strength and think ‘can we?’ Our hearts are as big as them. It is like in rugby when you have a pack that is two stone, three stone heavier, you are always going to go back the way.
“The physicality of them was incredible,” he added. “It is like a flyweight versus a heavyweight. It is very hard to keep taking the knocks. But they kept at it. There were times when we thought: we can get an equaliser here with a bit of magic. At the moment we have to put in a lot of work just to get a shot on goal.”
“They are in a right good place,” he said, with reference to Belgium, whose substitutes’ bench looked as fearsome as their first-team. “We are in a place where we are trying to get better.
“We had some terrific performances. James Forrest was a couple of slips and stumbles away from having a terrific game. That can happen in football.
“The first 15 minutes we struggled. It is hard to pass through a big team like that. In the second half it was more like what we expected.”
After the comfortable victory Belgium sit at the top of Group A by a distance of five points from Croatia with two games left to play. Scotland, for whom Strachan’s predecessor Craig Levein had such high hopes at the start of the campaign, are now bottom.
Scotland’s aim is to lift themselves from last place again against Macedonia on Tuesday – a win last night would have put Strachan’s side third in the table. Robert Snodgrass is suspended for next week’s game after he picked up a first-half booking last night.
Strachan cautioned against expecting significant strides forward after the recent improvements detected in recent games against England and Croatia. “There are things we cannot do at this moment – we cannot make players bigger and stronger,” said Strachan. “This is what we have at the moment. When you look at what their team can do at the moment, that’s a different ball game.”
Leigh Griffiths, who plays for Wolves in League One in England, started up front for Scotland, before being replaced by Jordan Rhodes, the Blackburn Rovers forward, in the second half.
“Our main striker is playing against Stevenage and Crawley, their strikers are at Chelsea, and one is on loan somewhere else,” said Strachan. “Our other striker is from the Championship. It is not European football they are used to. That is top Champions League level we are playing against tonight.”
Even without the injured Eden Hazard, Belgium were in control from the start on a wet night in Glasgow. Belgium looked at home on the slick surface. Their fans let off fireworks in the stand and were in place long before the start of the game. The players rushed to celebrate with the supporters at the end.
“We are not there yet,” said Wilmots. “We haven’t got the ticket [for Brazil] yet. That was why we enjoyed the moment. But we cannot have a party just yet.”
According to Belgium captain Jan Vertonghen, firepower was the difference last night. “That was what we hoped for,” the Tottenham Hotspur defender said. “We had a very good game. Sometimes we were in a difficult period but Scotland are a good team and we were well prepared. We watched a lot of video and were ready. I think we had a lot of firepower up front, a lot of players who can score. We have so many who can and want to score.”