BELGIUM asserted their authority in a manner that left few in any doubt about their credentials last night at Hampden Park.
Every Scotland player had already been forced to come to terms with the slightly unnerving observation that their opposite man was a bigger physical specimen than they were. Even Charlie Mulgrew, brought in to add some presence to the Scottish midfield, peered up to Marouane Fellaini, the player he had been assigned to shadow.
When Scotland brought on their first substitute just before the hour mark, the man they brought on was Ikechi Anya, someone whose hair might add inches to his height, but who still rivalled Shaun Maloney for being the most diminutive player on the pitch. Even the referee towered over most of the Scotland players.
It was startling to look out across the pitch and see such an obvious contrast in the physicality of the teams competing. The opposition gave new meaning to the phrase, the muscles from Brussels. Bigger does not always mean better, of course. However, it did last night. Out-sung in the stands, out-muscled and out-played on the pitch, it added up to a sobering night for the hosts. Some consolation can be gathered from the knowledge that better teams than Scotland will be more heavily beaten by this Belgian side.
The hope that Scotland, with their pygmy-esque forward line of Leigh Griffiths, Maloney and James Forrest could skip past their lofty sentries at the back was a forlorn one, sadly.
An athletic-looking Belgium married strength with the talent we all know they have. Into this bubbling concoction was added another powerful ingredient – desire. Christian Benteke, who was being watched by his Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert, was back in his own box tangling with Robert Snodgrass at one point in the first half. Unsurprisingly, he came away with the ball at his feet, having shrugged Snodgrass aside amid weak Scottish claims for a penalty.
There was little here on which to base a revision of the pre-match portrayal of Belgium as World Cup challengers. Their golden generation appears well equipped to fulfil their potential. Indeed, the spirit of Jim White has been channelled this week at various press conferences, as various determined-looking Belgians sat down in front of reporters.
There were no introductions required since nearly every one of them was a star of world football. The burning questions as far as their Scottish audience was concerned was a simple one: why are you so good?
This is what everyone wanted to know. As far as Scottish fans are concerned, it slightly niggles to see Belgium bestride world football with their long limbs, good hair and fancy footwork. They are a small country, with a fair-to-middling domestic league. How can they be so feared and Scotland be so poor by comparison?
It is not an exact science of course. There is not one particular reason; indeed, various articles written this week came to different conclusions. Some contended that it was down to Belgium’s geographical location, near to the French and Dutch leagues and where youngsters could learn their trade at elite academies – not a single player in last night’s starting XI plays their club football in Belgium. Others insisted it was down to the adoption of a French system of nurturing talent in the early 2000s. Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, didn’t even agree that the countries could be compared. After all, Belgium is twice the size of Scotland in terms of population, something that is a significant factor in itself.
Still, manager Marc Wilmots was refreshing blunt when he was asked to explain why Belgium were now proving such a force in world football. “The bench,” he answered. He wasn’t referring to some piece of equipment in the gym at the Belgium Football Federation where the Belgium master-plan has been implemented. Rather, he meant the plain old substitutes’ bench. And last night you could see what he meant.
Belgium had strength in depth all right. The 11 names that featured among their substitutes could have provided most international teams in Europe – and probably beyond – with a stern test. They would certainly have swatted aside their counterparts on the Scotland bench, even with the extra man advantage the dozen replacements named by Gordon Strachan would have held over them.
Wilmots, who spent most of the time at the edge of his technical area in his drenched suit, could look over his shoulder and be warmed by the sight of the likes of Simon Mignolet, the first-choice Liverpool goalkeeper, and Dries Mertens, the Napoli winger, sitting behind him. Then there was Moussa Dembele, of Spurs, and the Everton pair of Kevin Mirallas, who came on and scored Belgium’s second, and Romelu Lukaku. For Strachan, the view over his shoulder was not quite so reassuring.
You could certainly believe the statistic that was bandied around in the pre-match build up: if the worth of each player in all the international teams in the world added up, then Belgium would be the third most expensive side in the globe.
All the hype sat lightly upon their broad shoulders. The visitors might have gone ahead in the second minute when a simple corner caused palpitations in the Scottish box, something that didn’t augur well after the set-piece difficulties Scotland experienced at the end of the England game. Then Fellaini headed narrowly past after shrugging off his markers at the back post.
Their superiority didn’t translate into anything tangible until the seven minutes before half-time, when Steven Defour swept in a cross from one of their many danger men, Kevin De Bruyne. When Mirallas made it two with three minutes left, few could argue that the comfort it offered Belgium was not what they deserved.