Scotland were reminded of their status at the King Baudouin stadium. They were tossed one scrap off the table when somewhat surreally Scott McKenna found himself straight through on goal with six minutes left. Thibaut Courtois made the block with James Forrest and then Oliver Burke failing to capitalise on the rebound. Kevin de Bruyne’s reinforced Belgium’s superiority with a third.
A Scotland loss should always be treated as disappointing. But there are occasions, such as against these Belgian aristocrats, when it’s simply enough to compete.
A patchwork Scotland side did that while falling to their second 3-0 loss of the group. This one certainly isn’t as potentially damaging as the first reversal in Kazakhstan. Nor does it deserve to trigger such opprobrium. There were mitigating factors, not least playing the No 1 ranked team in the world.
The Scotland team list, when it emerged, was difficult to take in. Ok, Andy Robertson’s out. That’s a major blow. Hang on, where’s Ryan Fraser? And don’t tell me that’s James Forrest missing as well…
Steve Clarke’s comments following the win over Cyprus meant we had expected changes for what he termed a completely different challenge.
We reckoned on two, possibly three. Not half the outfield team. Rumours began circulating in early evening that Robertson was out so Greg Taylor’s inclusion was not a complete shock. But the absence of Fraser as well meant the left flank where Scotland had looked so threatening on Saturday night had been stripped out completely.
Fortunately, Fraser was fit enough to come on as a replacement for Stuart Armstrong after just over half an hour. But this still left the novice Taylor to cope with De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and whatever other stellar talent happened to fancy teasing someone making the kind of step up in level requiring a cherry picker.
Roberto Martinez managed to deliver some nonsense about not trying to take advantage of Robertson’s inexperienced replacement while keeping a straight face before kick-off.
Robertson, meanwhile, spent the evening in the stand wearing his accreditation round his neck while flanked by two wizened SFA officials. It was not where any Scot wanted him to be. It also robbed Scotland of nearly all their star quality.
The empty seats in the stadium highlighted Scotland’s place in football’s firmament. Following the win over Cyprus in front of a stadium three quarters-full, this was a reminder that Scotland are to Belgium what Cyprus are to Scotland. Not exactly box office.
Some might reason that the fewer eyes trained on what many feared would be a drubbing would count as a blessing. But the longer the first half wore on, the more anguished became the howls from the home fans. This was the kind of game Clarke relishes. Cyprus was a contractual obligation, where a win was a necessity and nothing else mattered. Last night was his chance to exhibit why he is so highly regarded as a coach. His Kilmarnock side routinely frustrated the likes of Celtic and Rangers and Clarke seemed to take the enforced changes in his stride.
He claimed the pressure was on him not Taylor since he was the one who had picked him for the squad. Johnny Russell replaced Forrest on the right and Scott McTominay, in for the dropped John McGinn, brought some ballast to the midfield but switched off, fatally, moments before half-time to allow Eden Hazard to retrieve a ball the Manchester United midfielder presumed was going out. The erstwhile Chelsea man placed his studs on the ball before assessing his options and chipping towards Romelu Lukaku, who easily out-jumped McKenna to score.
There were just moments left before half-time. It ruined what until then had been another Clarke masterpiece when it comes to resisting the efforts of a clearly superior team. Even reaching the interval at 0-0 would have been the equivalent of simply making it to base camp at Everest. Scotland had to re-group at half-time and keep their discipline, which they did admirably.
But two more goals, another from Lukaku and one right at the death from De Bruyne, meant the final whistle felt like a blessing at the end of a long, arduous season. Clarke won’t want to be reminded who’s up next: Russia… and then Belgium.