Kenny McLean: Belgium are world class but we have quality too

Kenny McLean hugs goal hero Oliver Burke in the win over Cyprus
Kenny McLean hugs goal hero Oliver Burke in the win over Cyprus
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Kenny McLean will have reason to retrieve the 
crier’s bell he recently rang so convincingly from a Norwich balcony and declare another public holiday if Scotland beat Belgium tonight in Brussels.

He and his team-mates will enjoy the freedom of every settlement in Scotland. Even a draw, the result Steve Clarke likely deems a more realistic aim, would merit some form of official national recognition.

In view of yesterday being Whit Monday, a Scottish win could give birth to a Whit!? Tuesday to mark such an outlandish success. Taking three points from this evening’s Group I clash seems scarcely possible. McLean, who adopted the role of Major of Norwich last month as Norwich City celebrated winning the English Championship, will be one of those required to put in a performance of their life if Scotland are to stage such a shock.

Belgium are not world champions but they do sit atop the Fifa rankings. Even when Scotland defeated France in Paris in 2007, the hosts were No 4 in the world. France were in the same position when the Scots posted a win against them at Hampden the previous year. When, 20 years ago last April, Scotland went to Bremen and beat Germany 1-0, with a Don Hutchison winner, it was only a friendly and the home team were then at No 3 in the rankings.

This evening has the potential to be a historic evening – preferably for the right reasons. There’s also scope for Belgium to underline why they are where they are in the rankings by putting the Scots to the sword. If Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Co play at anything like their best, Clarke knows Scotland could be in trouble.

With this in mind, McLean might be asked to revise the holding midfield role he performed so capably in the win over Cyprus on Saturday, possibly with the assistance of someone else this time. “I don’t fancy a man-marking job on him – I think we’ll go two-on-one!” he said when asked about Hazard’s threat.

Scott McTominay is primed to come into the side after his lively cameo on Saturday
and can provide some extra physical 
presence in midfield against the athletic Belgians.

The manner of Saturday’s victory – scoring the winner two minutes after conceding a potentially critical equaliser – meant the players all entered the dressing-room in boisterous fashion at the end. Such last-gasp wins are often the best kind of victories but they can mask deficiencies. Clarke has already stressed he won’t be fooled.

Supremely welcome though it was, a one-goal win over Cyprus is a world away from facing a Belgium side intent on giving their fans a show before the summer break. Scotland will have to take more care of the ball when they have it, which won’t be for the long spells enjoyed for the most part against the Cypriots.

“We’ll need to show more character,” said McLean. “Belgium are littered with world-class players. But we know how we are against the ball, we’ll show our compactness and we’ve got players at the top end of the pitch that can hurt anyone. Our two wide men [James Forrest and Ryan Fraser] are top-class players.

“We will need to be hard to beat but we need to have that threat going forward. Ryan is that type of player, his quality is there in abundance. He’s playing in the 
Premier League right now but I can see him going to the very top.

“The players they’ve got are world-class – they’re at the top of the tree. But we’ve got plenty of quality as well. We want to put ourselves against the best.”

Released from the weight of expectation so evident on Saturday night is one thing Scotland have going for them. McLean needed little invitation to transfer the 
burden from the Scots’ shoulders on to those of the Belgians, who are looking to maintain their 100 per cent record in the group.

The midfielder described the occasion as a “privilege” to be involved in and urged his team-mates to make the most of the opportunity to test themselves against players such as Hazard, who has left the English Premier League for Real Madrid just when McLean has arrived in England’s top flight with Norwich City.

“The pressure will be on them, like it was on us on Saturday,” he said. “The expectation was on us to win the game. Thankfully, we delivered then and the pressure is now on them. But we feel we can get a result. It’ll be tough to stop Hazard but it’s something you’ve got to enjoy. We’ve got plenty of players that can hurt them. We’re privileged to be in this position and we need to leave it all on the pitch. We did it on Saturday night – they made it tough for us but we got the result we needed.”

After the weekend’s win, tense though it might have been, Scotland are back in the running for second place. Anything gleaned from this evening’s game will be a bonus ahead of home ties with Russia and Belgium in September, by which time Clarke will have firmly bedded himself in. Whatever happens in the King Baudouin stadium this evening, McLean is confident Scotland are moving in the right direction once more.

“There’s been a great spirit around the place and the manager has brought that with him,” said McLean. “His staff are excellent as well, really enjoyable to work with.

“I think everyone in the squad would say the same. We’re only going to get better.

“You can see, in spells of the game, that while Cyprus were decent we showed the way we want to play. We could have been a bit braver with our press but playing against teams like Belgium, you’ll see how tough we are to beat. The manager has drummed that into us.

“He doesn’t need to coach the attacking players, guys like James Forrest and Ryan Fraser don’t need to be told how 
to attack. But defensively we’ll be hard 
to beat.”