IF HE did not quite find himself back at square one last night, Gordon Strachan was provided with a sharp reminder of how far he has to go in order to make Scotland credibly competitive on the international stage once more.
Scotland 0-2 Belgium
Scorers: Belgium - Defour (38), Mirallas (88)
Defeat to a Belgian side rated among the favourites to lift the World Cup next summer carries no shame but this was nonetheless another dispiriting evening for the Tartan Army.
Goals from Steven Defour and Kevin Mirallas earned Belgium a fully merited victory which all but secures their passage to Brazil. While they celebrated with their 7,000 strong travelling support, however, Scotland have now gone two years without tasting victory at Hampden.
Strachan, suffering his fourth defeat in six matches since replacing Craig Levein as manager, simply saw his players outclassed and outmanoeuvred by opponents who appear capable of living up to the hype which surrounds them. On this evidence, Scotland appear as detached as ever from international football’s top table.
There were a couple of mild surprises in Strachan’s starting line-up. The inclusion of Charlie Mulgrew in central midfield had not been widely predicted, although the manager’s reasoning was obvious enough as he sought to combat the height and physicality of Belgium in that area of the pitch.
Up front, Strachan handed a notable vote of confidence to Leigh Griffiths as Scotland look for a new striking focal point following Kenny Miller’s retirement. It was a daunting assignment for the man currently playing in the third tier of English football as he lined up against a Belgian back four comprised of players from elite clubs in England, Spain, Germany and Russia.
While Belgium unsurprisingly exerted dominance of possession right from the start, there was no immediate sense of Scotland being as overwhelmed as they had been when the teams met in Brussels last October.
As it had been on that occasion, the pace and movement of Nacer Chadli was one of the biggest sources of concern for the Scottish defence. The Tottenham player created the first clear opening of the night, whipping over a cross from the left which Marouane Fellaini, under pressure from Steven Whittaker, was unable to head on target at the far post.
Scotland were seeking to be as robust as possible in disrupting the rhythm and tempo of their visitors but Robert Snodgrass was over zealous with a flying elbow in an aerial challenge with Axel Witsel which left the Zenit St Petersburg man flattened. It earned Snodgrass a caution which rules him out of Tuesday’s match in Macedonia.
Shaun Maloney, an ever-present for Scotland under Strachan so far, was deployed as the most advanced midfielder in support of Griffiths. The Wigan player provided Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with his first involvement in proceedings, sending in a cross-cum-shot from the left which, even with a deflection en route, did not trouble the Atletico Madrid number one.
Fellaini, whose Manchester United manager David Moyes was looking on, earned the second booking of the match when he was penalised for a challenge from behind on Snodgrass.
The game lacked any real fluidity, which clearly suited the Scots more. A piece of quick thinking from Maloney even threatened to give the home side a breakthrough in the 20th minute, but his sharply taken free-kick to find Snodgrass free in the penalty area was wasted.
Chelsea youngster Kevin De Bruyne was finding more time and space in front of the Scottish back four than Strachan would have wished. He burst between Russell Martin and Whittaker to fire in Belgium’s first attempt on target which was competently dealt with by David Marshall.
The teams then traded decent long-range efforts, Scott Brown fizzing a sweetly struck right foot shot narrowly wide of Courtois’ right hand post at one end before Witsel slammed a dipping volley straight into Marshall’s midriff.
Scotland were just about worth their parity at this stage but fell behind seven minutes before the break when Belgium suddenly shifted through a gear or two to plunder the opener. Whittaker was guilty of conceding possession cheaply and the Group A leaders took full advantage.
Fellaini threaded a pass to De Bruyne on the right and he swept over a cross which Defour guided expertly beyond Marshall, the Porto midfielder’s first-time right-foot shot going in off the inside of the goalkeeper’s right hand post.
Belgium sought to press home their advantage immediately after the restart, working their way into threatening positions with a combination of pace and intelligent movement. Scotland were fortunate not to concede a penalty in the 50th minute, captain Scott Brown clearly appearing to trip Christian Benteke inside the area with a sliding challenge.
The ubiquitous Chadli then brought Marshall into action again, the goalkeeper comfortably holding a 20 yard shot from the midfielder whose perceptive runs into space continued to flummox the home defence.
Scotland, though, retained hope of taking something from the match and their resilience was at least earning the approval of the home support. They voiced optimistic appeals for a penalty when Alan Hutton, whose foraging runs from right-back had largely been restricted by the Belgians, tumbled in the area under Chadli’s challenge. It would have been an extremely soft award.
With Griffiths too often an isolated figure up front for the Scots, they lacked any penetration whenever they were able to retain some possession.
Strachan responded by making his first change in the 59th minute, withdrawing Snodgrass and handing a debut to Ikechi Anya. The Glasgow-born Watford player was quick to make a positive impression, showing excellent pace and control with a surge down the left. His cross picked out the run of Maloney whose first time shot flew just over the crossbar.
Griffiths was replaced by Jordan Rhodes as Strachan looked to breath fresh life into his side for the closing stages as Belgium looked content to sit on their narrow lead. But they wiped out any lingering doubt about the outcome when they burst into life and doubled their advantage with two minutes remaining. Benteke held the ball up smartly before playing a reverse pass to substitute Mirallas. Withnt Hanley committing himself too quickly, the Everton player had a free run into the penalty area where he clipped a left foot shot beyond the helpless Marshall.
Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, Hanley, Martin, Whittaker; Brown, Mulgrew; Forrest (McCormack 86), Maloney, Snodgrass (Anya 59); Griffiths (Rhodes 68). Subs not used: Gilks, Conway, Naismith, Wallace, Adam, McArthur, Bannan, Samson, Greer.
Belgium: Courtois, Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Lombaerts (Pocognoli 77), Vertonghen; Witsel, Defour (Dembele 87); De Bruyne, Fellaini (Mirallas 68), Chadli; Benteke. Subs not used: Mignolet, Casteels, Ciman, Mertens, Gillet, Van Damme, Lukaku, Simons.