Duncan Smith: Scotland overrun as Belgium herald a new golden age
Belgium as a nation is often dismissed as a byword for continental dullness – a country whose most famous sons are fictional characters (Tintin and Hercule Poirot) and most notable produce is EU red tape.
There is nothing dull about their current crop of footballers, however, and, having gone 61 years without recording a victory there, we Scots are in no position to be taking the Manneken Pis.
Since the golden age of the 1980s, when Belgium boasted bona fide world class talents in the likes of Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Nico Claesen and Eric Gerets, and came within a Maradona masterclass of reaching the 1986 World Cup final, they hit the skids. For a while, their most famous footballer was Jean-Marc Bosman, and not for anything he contributed on the pitch.
But all of a sudden, in the immortal words of the great Stuart Hall, it’s a case of “here come the Belgians” and they inflicted on Scotland their own version of It’s A Knockout in the former Heysel Stadium tonight. So ubiquitous have they become in the English Premier League of late that many a Scottish viewer would be more familiar with some of the players in red than those in the away white, which for a second time in four days Scotland wore despite the non-existence of a colour clash.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard may have been dropped following a below-par display in the 3-0 win over Serbia, and Everton’s distinctive Marouane Fellaini was out injured, but in the likes of league-winning Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen and the Spurs duo of Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, there was plenty to feed Scottish pessimism in the Belgian team line.
Napoleon met his Waterloo in Belgium (before there was a Belgian state) and the feeling was that Scotland manager Craig Levein was about to meet his. Defeat in Brussels would end any lingering hopes of World Cup qualification and surely Levein’s undistinguished tenure as Scotland manager.
The French emperor also famously said “give me a lucky general” and while not all of the disappointments of the Levein era have been down to bad luck, it would be churlish not to accept that it has played its part, most notably in Cardiff last Friday when a potentially enervating 2-0 win was turned in the blink of an eye into a crushing 2-1 loss on the back of two debatable decisions by the officials.
Levein could not bemoan bad luck tonight. The Scots enjoyed enough good fortune to atone for half a dozen Cardiffs in a first half which can only be described as a scoreless rout.
From the very first minute, when a Gary Caldwell calamity allowed Dries Mertens to burst into the box only for Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor to pull off a fine double save, you sensed it was going to be a long night. If not for McGregor and the charmed life of his goal it is no exaggeration to say Scotland could have trailed in at half-time staring at a humiliation.
Shaun Maloney was unlucky to see his well-directed free kick saved by Thibaut Courtois, but beyond that it was as one-sided contest.
It was difficult not to be suitably impressed by the Belgians, who attacked in waves, and easy to see why so many view them as potential major title winners in the next decade.
However, they are clearly not the finished article and there was a suspicion that the Scots were a touch hypnotised by the hype. Witnessing a Scotland team being technically outplayed is hardly a new experience, but they did seem to stand off to admire the opposition. Scott Brown might have provided more dig in midfield but the fragile Celtic skipper was out injured, replaced by James McArthur in the only change from the team that started in Wales. With Darren Fletcher and Alan Hutton both short of full match fitness, for varying reasons, the Scots were unable to to live with the high tempo of the Belgians.
Where there is life there is hope, though, and as half-time came with the match still miraculously goalless, a weak Scottish pulse continued to flicker.
Both sides made a change at the interval, with Jamie Mackie replacing Kris Commons and Dembele making way for Hazard. The latter switch was the more impactful as the Chelsea man, clearly smarting from his demotion to the bench, immediately started to pull the strings and it became clear Scotland were in for as stern an examination after the break as before. There was a sense of inevitability when the fatal blows came, Christian Benteke and Kompany clinically dispatching yet another Scottish qualifying campain to the grave. If Levein was a “dead man walking” before last night then his tenure is now in the spirit world. Further talk of “progress” would be complete Belgian waffle.
It was, depressingly, just more of the same.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North