ALMOST ten minutes after the full-time whistle had sounded on this 2-0 annihilation in the King Badouin Stadium last night, the buoyant Belgians were still out on the pitch taking the acclaim of their adoring public.
The players unfurled a huge banner and danced a jubilant lap of honour as the majority of the 40,000 home supporters remained behind for celebrations that suggested they had already qualified for the World Cup. Mathematically, they’re not there yet, but the Belgian FA wouldn’t be wasting their time if they were to start planning for Brazil.
While all this merry-making was unfolding in this giddy pocket of north-west Brussels, the ever-embattled Tartan Army – having enjoyed their day in the Grand Place before further festivities at the pre-match fan park – were trooping back to the city centre with dry mouths and no reason for optimism. The Scotland players, having been toyed with for 90 soul-destroying minutes, were down in the bowels of the stadium digesting the fact that they are, once and for all, out of the equation in terms of making it to Rio and are now battling merely to make sure they don’t end up bottom of their six-team section, a position they find themselves in today after accumulating just two points from their first four games.
As far as highlighting polar opposites goes, last night’s mismatch will take some beating. It was just over a decade ago that these two nations battled it out for a play-off place in the 2002 World Cup campaign. It could have gone either way, with the Belgians pipping Craig Brown’s Scots by two points in the end, mainly thanks to a comeback from two goals down to salvage a draw at Hampden. The way this campaign is unfolding, there could quite feasibly be over 20 points between the teams by the time it climaxes in a year’s time.
Gallingly for the Scots, there is now the prospect of two years of dead space in terms of thinking again about a tilt at qualifying for another major finals. Qualifying for Euro 2016 will begin in autumn 2014 and what state the national team will be in by then is anyone’s guess. If it continues as it is, there’s a fair chance they could be drawn from the fifth pot and left with no chance once again.
What does seem certain is that Craig Levein will no longer be in charge. It would be churlish to blame the manager for last night’s defeat as, given the frightening difference in class between the two sets of players, there was little he could have done to stem the relentless flow of rampant red shirts into the Scotland danger area. Indeed there were times last night when Belgium resembled a team of Gareth Bales, their players constantly causing mayhem for the helpless Scots in the same way that the magnificent Welshman had done almost on his own in Cardiff on Friday night.
However, regardless of the men-against-toddlers nature of the contest, this was a game Levein had to win if he was to have any chance of regaining even the slightest modicum of respect in the eyes of a public who have long since given up on him. There was a period last night – early in the second half – when Scotland had ridden their luck so much that a feeling was growing that they might just be able to pull off the unlikeliest of smash and grab victories.
But those hopes were extinguished with two goals in two minutes by Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany as the match entered its final quarter. The Tartan Army have been in this movie plenty of times before; indeed this was their eighth competitive away defeat in 11 matches since that glory night in Paris just over five years ago. But in terms of Levein, they’ve had enough. A banner was unveiled from the away end reading “Strachan SOS”, a plea for Gordon Strachan to take the reins. The way things are right now, they would probably rather Gordon Brown was in charge than the current beleaguered incumbent. Levein afterwards vowed he would continue to fight on in the job until he is told otherwise, but it is hard to see how he can recover a situation which sees a pile of unflattering stats against his name.
Having somehow come within 21 minutes of what would have been an incredibly fortuitous draw, he was ultimately left throwing on Kenny Miller and Matt Phillips in a futile effort to try and salvage a point and possibly his job. A penny for his thoughts upon seeing his all-conquering opposite number, Marc Wilmots, being able to bring on a convicted sex offender, Ilombe Mboyo, for the last few minutes of the contest with hardly a mutter of discontent from his partying public, just a few months after the Scotland boss had seen one of his own controversial selections, Ian Black, booed for the relatively trivial matter of being a Rangers player in the Third Division.
This is where Levein’s reign is at, though. Pretty much everything he does has a way of inviting criticism. He must have thought that by bowing to public pressure and recalling Steven Fletcher and Kris Commons for the past week’s double-header, he might have bought himself some breathing space, but, even with those two starting both games, no points have been collected. While Friday night’s defeat was harsh in the extreme, given the dubious events of the last 15 minutes in Cardiff, Levein and his team could have no complaints last night. They were totally outclassed from the first minute to the last, save for a few fleeting forays into the Belgian half.
As much as Belgium were brilliant, Scotland were a sorry, abject bunch. As always, they ran themselves into the ground – they all still appear to be behind their manager – but lacked quality all over the pitch and were constantly muscled off the ball or harried into basic errors by their more athletic opponents.
It wouldn’t be stretching a point to suggest that this was Scotland’s most comprehensive competitive defeat since losing 6-0 to Holland in a Euro 2004 play-off in Amsterdam, with the scintillating Belgians creating easily enough chances to have racked up a similar scoreline to their near-neighbours nine years ago. That they didn’t was mainly down to the heroics of Scotland goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, who pulled off some incredible saves, including four in the opening ten minutes alone. Just as the Scots were beginning to believe they might be capable of holding out, however, Benteke rose at the back post to head the opener from a Kevin De Bruyne cross after 69 minutes. And just two minutes later, Kompany, the Manchester City centre-back, put the tin lid on Scotland’s World Cup bid when he despatched the type of blistering strike from inside the box that any forward would have been proud of.
Scotland’s two best moments came in the shape of decent first-half free-kicks by Shaun Maloney and then Commons which had Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois fully tested. But these were pretty much the only occasions throughout the evening when the hosts were given any cause for concern. In fact, the most taxing task of the night for most of these brilliant Belgians was battling their way through the mixed zone afterwards as scores of media folk clamoured to grab a word with the coming men of world football. Right now, Scotland and Belgium are poles apart.
Belgium: Courtois, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Kompany, Vertonghen, Witsel, De Bruyne, Dembele (Hazard 46), Benteke (Mboyo 86), Chadli, Mertens (Mirallas 55). Unused subs: Mignolet, Ciman, Van Buyten, Defour, Lombaerts, Vossen, J Gillet, Simons, G Gillet.
Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Berra, Caldwell, Fox, Commons, D Fletcher (Mackie 46), McArthur, Maloney, Morrison (Phillips 80), S Fletcher (Miller 75). Unused subs: Gilks, Marshall, Mulgrew, Martin, Webster, Cowie, Adam.
Ref: T Hagen (Nor)