GORDON Strachan has endorsed Belgium’s credentials as potential 2014 World Cup winners but insists his revitalised Scotland side can hand them a rare defeat at Hampden tonight.
The Belgians arrived in Glasgow with an all-time high Fifa world ranking of 10th and are rated as fifth favourites by bookmakers to lift the biggest prize of them all in Brazil next summer.
Scotland were the first European nation to be eliminated from the competition after taking just two points from their first four games in Group A. Belgium, in stark contrast, are the only unbeaten team in the group and another victory tonight would take them to the brink of automatic qualification for the finals.
But, although Strachan shares the widespread admiration for a Belgian squad laden with rich talent plying their trade in Europe’s elite leagues, he is convinced his players are capable of upsetting the odds this evening.
Buoyed by the shock 1-0 win over Croatia in Zagreb in June and last month’s largely encouraging performance in losing 3-2 to England at Wembley, the Scotland manager has set his sights on securing his first Hampden win since taking the job.
He does not believe that losing to Belgium would constitute a serious setback as he continues to try to shape a team who can make it to the Euro 2016 finals in France. But he is content that the mindset and attitude of the Scotland squad is much improved from the mood which he inherited from Craig Levein nine months ago.
“We know that Belgium are capable of beating us if we are not at our best but we also know that we can beat Belgium,” said Strachan.
“With the players Belgium have, I’m sure they will be thinking they can do very well in the World Cup. They have 18 terrific players. Are they up there with Spain? It would be a good game between them. Spain and Belgium have different football philosophies, but it would be a good game to watch.
“They are a terrific side and I think they are a football team that can play any type of football. They can play short passes, long passes. If you want to make it a scrap, they will scrap with you. They are athletic. I read an article that said, if you pick their best 11 players against the best 11 players anywhere in the world, they are the third most expensive team in the world. That is some going.
“But I don’t see that it’s all doom and gloom if we don’t get a result or performance against Belgium and I also don’t think we should get on a real high if we get a good result.
“The game is a crazy game and something might happen that could spoil a great performance. Or there could be a lack of concentration, which happened with us against England. We were a wee bit annoyed at ourselves for that lack of concentration, that’s for sure.
“I think we are all getting used to each other in the squad. I am getting to know them as people, they are getting to know my sense of humour – when I’m serious and when I am having a laugh. It has got more relaxed because of that and, obviously, the last couple of performances have made it better.
“That’s the way it goes in football, in any sport. When
you are performing better, you feel better about yourself. I am sure there is a bit more pride about the squad. People saying ‘I’m playing with the Scotland team at the moment and I’m quite happy to be.’ So that’s good.
“Even small things like the weather has made it a lot easier. The weather has been good this week – the first time we met up it was snowing. Now we can relax a bit better. So the mood has been better but it is probably right, that the performances have made us feel good about ourselves.”
Hampden will host its
biggest away support for several years, with 7,000 Belgian fans in the stadium. But, despite Scotland’s recent signs of improvement, the home allocation of tickets has not been sold out.
“Listen, I can’t ask for any more from our fans than what they’re giving,” said Strachan. “It’s like asking players to do more than what they can do. They do as much as they can. We say come along and join us. But everybody can’t afford to turn up though. That’s the problem. You can’t ask people to come along and pay money that’s not there.
“So whoever turns up for us, we know fine well we’re going to get the full backing. I’ve been there as a supporter myself. When you get a victory or performance, you do feel part of it.
“You go and tell your mates you were part of that as well. It’s the same for us in every game. You have to give the supporters something to hang on to.”