IF there is ever such a thing in sport as an honourable defeat, this was surely it. Scotland fought with commitment, conviction and no little skill, but in the end were beaten by 2-0 by Belgium opponents who were the better team in almost every department of the game.
Scorers: Belgium - Defour 38, Mirallas 87
A first-half strike from Steven Defour was the only difference between the sides on the score sheet until substitute Kevin Mirallas made it two with minutes to play, but the Group A leaders always looked like they would be able to score more at will if the need arose. Marouane Fellaini rarely seemed to raise his pace above a stroll, yet was still able to exert a dominant influence on central midfield. Outside him, Kevin de Bruyne was his team’s most incisive attacker, while up front Christian Benteke was always a threat to the Scotland defence.
While the result takes Belgium ever closer to automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil, Scotland are now bottom of the group, still with only five points from eight matches. Gordon Strachan’s team began the match in the same position, a consequence of Macedonia’s earlier 2-1 home win over Wales, but they also knew they would end the night in third if they beat the Belgians and Serbia lost at home to Croatia.
That is an illustration of how tight the group is behind the top two, and Scotland’s recent win over Croatia remains a source of real encouragement for the future. For the present, however, there is little doubt that the Belgians are a class apart.
In front of an impressively large and vociferous travelling support, Belgium began the match confidently, despite being slowed down by the slippery surface. Tottenham midfielder Nacer Chadli caused problems down the left as Scotland struggled for possession, and midway through the half Grant Hanley made an important interception to cut out one of his crosses as Fellaini lurked at the far post.
By that time Manchester United’s new signing had become the first booking of the night, being unfairly shown a yellow card by the Italian referee after cleanly winning the ball from Robert Snodgrass. Fellaini noticeably held back a little while going into tackles after that, but he remained an important influence as his team patiently sought to make the breakthrough.
With almost half an hour gone, Kevin de Bruyne was allowed too much space in which to advance, and his shot from the edge of the D was spilled by David Marshall. With no-one else close to the ball, the goalkeeper was able to collect the rebound.
At the other end, Scotland’s best attempt of the first half came from captain Scott Brown after his Celtic team-mate Charlie Mulgrew had allowed the ball to run to him. Brown struck his shot powerfully from 30 yards, but was wide of the target.
By that stage of the half Scotland were far closer to enjoying parity than they had been at first, but seven minutes before the break they found themselves behind to Defour’s goal. Fellaini did the initial damage with a ball up the right to De Bruyne, and the Chelsea player’s first-time cross was perfectly placed for Defour to meet it, also first-time, and find the net with a right-foot shot.
The combination of Fellaini and De Bruyne continued to cause problems for Scotland in the second half, with the former sparking one attack with a delightful back-heel to his team-mate. That attack fizzled out, but the pressure was soon back on the home team as a shot from Christian Benteke went narrowly wide.
A similar effort from Steven Whittaker showed that Scotland were still in the contest, and they looked livelier still once Ikechi Anya came on to make his debut in place of Snodgrass. The Watford winger gave Scotland the width they had lacked up to then, even if at times he was too easily shrugged off the ball by right-back Toby Alderweireld.
Scotland’s hopes of snatching a point from the game, however, were undone two minutes from the end of the regulation 90 when Mirallas burst through the middle and coolly curled the ball past David Marshall into the net. It was no more than Belgium deserved.