Disappointed Scotland boss Gordon Strachan today admitted it had been flyweights against heavyweights as he watched Rio-bound Belgium stroll to victory at Hampden.
He insisted he had got as much as he could possibly have asked from his players against a team he reckons is right up there with the best in the world, bur the current gulf in class between the two nations was highlighted by goals in either half from Steven Defour and Kevin Mirallas.
“I feel a bit sorry for the players,” he said, “For having put so much work into the game against probably one of the best international teams in the world right now. I got 14 performances from the heart and I do not have a problem with that and I got as much as I think I could have got, but it was like a flyweight against a heavyweight – the physicality of them was just incredible.”
Although he conceded Belgium were by far the superior side, Strachan contended there was a point in the second half of the match when he believed his players were capable of springing a surprise, only to have substitute Mirallas all but seal Belgium’s place in next summer’s finals with a late killer second goal.
He said: “I thought we might get an equaliser if someone came up with a bit of magic, but at the moment we have to put in 20 passes to get an attempt at goal. Belgium are in a right good place at the moment, they are better than us and then there is their physicality. What can you do about genetics? Our hearts are as big as them, but you stand in that tunnel and look at their size, their strength.”
Strachan perhaps caught a few by surprise in opting for Leigh Griffiths for that “Kenny Miller” role up front in what was his first Hampden outing for his country, the 22-year-old’s lack of experience at this level compensated by the fact he’d operated for much of last season as a “lone wolf” in spearheading the Hibs attack to devastating effect, as his 28 goals would attest.
From the opening minutes, though, it was obvious Griffiths was in for a night of hard toil for little reward, the idea being to get Shaun Maloney and Robert Snodgrass up in support, the only problem being the Scots had to get hold of the ball for that plan to work.
The Wolves man would have known in any case he’d be asked to live on meagre rations and to use his movement, willingness to chase down lost causes and ability to conjure something out of nothing as he did so often at Easter Road, to compensate for lack of possession.
And so it proved as, like a well-oiled machine, Belgium set to work, their slick passing helped no end by the rain which had fallen on the Hampden turf as they gave Strachan’s side a nervy opening salvo as they stretched the Scots through the width of Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli.
It did, however, take the Belgians until the 26th minute to test David Marshall, Christian Benteke’s head flick allowing De Bruyne the opportunity to drill in a low shot which went straight into the arms of the stand-in goalkeeper who was again in the right place to gather the Chelsea stars second effort a couple of minutes later.
Scotland knew they’d have to make the most of any opportunities which came their way and Snodgrass’ failure to capitalise on a piece of quick thinking by Maloney clearly frustrated Strachan as he turned away in disgust on the touchline before skipper Scott Brown brought the Tartan Army to their feet with a rasping drive which flew inches wide of Thibaut Courtois’ right hand post.
James Forrest then burst into the Belgian penalty area, only to lose his footing, again another rare moment of slight concern for Marc Wilmots’ players who finally made the breakthrough with a goal which smacked of both simplicity and brilliance. Again De Bruyne was the instigator, making space to take Marouane Fellaini’s pass on the right before setting off at pace, his head up to spot the run of Defour, who didn’t have to break stride as he swept the ball beyond Marshall from 16 yards.
For all their superiority, that was all Belgium had to show for their efforts at the interval, although their tally of shots on target far outweighed those of the Scots, who could muster only a weak effort from James Forrest.
The Celtic winger was given a more central role on the restart and it almost paid immediate dividends as he latched onto Steven Whittaker’s long ball, only to find that the Belgians possessed a bit of steel to go with the beauty of their play as NIcolas Lombaerts proved to have too much muscle.
Scotland and then Belgium had plaintive shouts for a penalty, Alan Hutton going down too easily for Paolo Taglavento’s liking as he was challenged by the backtracking Chadli, before De Bruyne went to ground as he ran between Maloney and Grant Hanley. Again, though, the Italian referee was unimpressed as he was when Scott Brown appeared to catch Benteke.
Even at this level and for a side reckoned by Strachan to have as good World Cup credentials as any other nation heading to Rio next summer, a one-goal lead can be a fragile advantage, but, unfortunately for Scotland, although they used the ball better, they lacked the craft or guile to prise open a defence which has yet to concede a goal in an away game during qualifying.
Strachan could see as much and so played his wild card, throwing on Watford wing back Ikechi Anya, who spent the first seven years of his life only a couple of miles away from Hampden in Castlemilk. He almost proved to be the key to the lock, racing away from Toby Alderweireld and delivering a cross which Maloney met on the stretch to direct the ball over the bar.
The strength in depth of the Belgian squad – who had started without Eden Hazard even on the bench as the Chelsea ace recovers from injury – was underlined when Fellaini, who had completed a £27.5 million move to Manchester United on transfer deadline day, was replaced by his former Everton team-mate Mirallis – a minute after Jordan Rhodes of Championship side Blackburn Rovers had come on for Griffiths, plying his domestic trade in England’s third tier with Wolves.
Wilmots further illustrated the seemingly endless array of talent at his disposal by then withdrawing goalscorer Defour of FC Porto and introducing Moussa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur – “another giant with incredible technique” according to Strachan – and just another in a squad with a total value reckoned to be some £255m while, as the Scotland boss pointed out, his main striker on the night is playing against sides such as Stevenage and Crawley.
And the gulf in class showed as Chadli intercepted Marshall’s clearance, nodding the ball down for Benteke who, as Hanley sold himself, played in a delightful ball for Mirallas to loft it beyond Marshall, allowing Wilmots to finally relax.
With Croatia drawing against Serbia, it all but confirmed Belgium’s place in Rio, sparking huge celebrations for the 7000 fans who had crossed the North Sea for just that moment, although Wilmots insisted: “We’ve made a big step towards qualification, but we don’t have our tickets yet.
“We are five points clear with a plus five goal difference. That’s why we enjoyed the moment with our fans, but we have not qualified yet.”
Strachan, on the other hand, could only cast an envious eye towards the Red Devils as they joined their fans and would no doubt have been disappointed again with the manner in which goals were conceded, a lack of concentration contributing on both counts as it had in the defeat by England at Wembley, but on reflection he’d be reasonably satisfied with further signs of the progress which has been evident in recent months.
Sadly, with all hope of qualification having disappeared a year ago with those bitterly disappointing draws against Serbia and Macedonia, that’s all Strachan can hope for in the closing two matches of this miserable campaign, in Skopje on Tuesday and next month when Croatia roll into town.