Scotland’s hopes of automatic progress to Euro 2020 all but vanished amid a Belgian whirlwind at Hampden.
First-half goals from Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld and a fourth from Kevin De Bruyne eased Belgium to a 4-0 triumph, as their qualification machine whirred unerringly on.
Steve Clarke’s side, fresh from Friday’s disappointment against Russia, were dealt a chastening hand on a night where they slipped nine points off the automatic places, with four games left to play.
Their hopes of springing an almighty shock never looked like materialising, as Belgium’s magicians took little time to take over. When the smoke cleared at the end of the night De Bruyne was left holding the wand, delivering a masterclass to underline his reputation as one of the world’s best.
The remaining four games for Scotland now become an exercise in player auditions. Clarke has to use the rest of this campaign to formalise his best side for the play-offs in March.
With four changes to the team that lost their way against Russia at least showed Clarke is willing to experiment. Ryan Christie merited selection after his cameo on Friday night as the entire front line was changed, with Matt Phillips and Robert Snodgrass also in for James Forrest, Oli McBurnie and Ryan Fraser. Kenny McLean, another who came on against Russia, took John McGinn’s place.
The 3-0 defeat in Brussels in June gave Scotland a harsh reminder of Belgium’s quality. It took them close to 45 minutes to break them down that night; it took just nine this time around. Scotland had committed bodies forward for Robert Snodgrass’ free-kick, sensing it would be their best opportunity of a surprise lead.
The problem was it left them short-handed on deck for the inevitable counter-attack. Dries Mertens drew Stephen O’Donnell close before releasing Kevin De Bruyne, as a rapidly pivoting Andy Robertson tried to decide whether to cover him or Lukaku. He was caught in no-mans’ land, allowing De Bruyne to square for Lukaku’s finish.
Seeing how O’Donnell had been overwhelmed against Russia, Belgium made no qualms about picking on the Kilmarnock full-back. While Nacer Chadli lined up as the only player down the left for the visitors, Dries Mertens drifted to a wider starting position to exploit the gaps left when O’Donnell went careering forward. At times O’Donnell was Scotland’s most advanced player; often his first intention after releasing a ball to a team-mate was to set off forward, regardless of whether there was adequate cover available. Against weaker teams you could afford such deficiencies. Against Belgium? No chance.
One became two with 20 minutes still to go in the half, as Vermaelen escaped any marking in the penalty area to meet De Bruyne’s cross, turning past David Marshall from close range. While Belgium were not at full throttle, there was little doubt they could punish Scotland further when the opportunity arose.
Frankly, Belgium were on a different planet. Their speed of thought, never mind speed of pass, was superior. Shadows were chased without blue shirts ever threatening to catch them, with Hampden reduced to a murmur bar the boisterous pocket of Belgium supporters enjoying their away day. Alderweireld getting the third, via the underside of the bar, was salt applied to a gaping wound.
O’Donnell getting booked for diving in a vain attempt to win a penalty in the second half was a sign of the depths Scotland had been taken to. Desperation for something, anything, to draw as a positive had taken over. De Bruyne capped his night with a sumptuous finish, rattling the ball back in the direction it came from into the far corner.
Christie played with a purpose and endeavour, even with the deflating scoreline, and Marshall has not put a glove wrong over the two games. Clarke may well take encouragement from the fact there is so much room for improvement, with six months now to find it.
SCOTLAND (4-4-1-1) – Marshall 6; O’Donnell 5, Mulgrew 6, Cooper 6, Robertson 6, Snodgrass 6, McLean 5, McTominay 5, McGregor 5 (Armstrong 68), Christie 6 (McGinn 86), Phillips 6 (Russell 77). Subs not used – McLaughlin, MacGillivray, Forrest, McBurnie, Fraser, Bates, Devlin, Taylor.
BELGIUM (3-4-2-1) – Courtois 6; Alderweireld 7, Vermaelen 7, Vertonghen 6, Meunier 6 (Raman 90), Tielemans 7 (Verschaeren 86), Dendoncker 6, Chadli 7 (Carrasco 78), Mertens 7, De Bruyne 8, Lukaku 7. Subs not used – Mignolet, Sels, Vanaken, Origi, Januzaj, Praet, Benteke, Batshuayi.
Referee – Pawel Gil (Poland) 6.
Attendance – 25,524.
Man of the match – Kevin De Bruyne.