Opposition Focus - Belgium
Well, if the Russia Scout report was enough to give you a cause for concern, then Belgium's star-studded squad will certainly put the fear in you. Friday night was a hard watch. Having started well and grabbed an early goal, Scotland didn't look too clued up on what to do with an early lead along with significant domination. The tables had turned come the 20th minute and as the game progressed it only drifted further and further away from us.
We turn the page however, they don't come any harder than the number one side in the world, the Belgian Red Devils.
One positive for the Tartan Army heading to Hampden at least, is that the Hazard brothers will both be absent after picking up injuries, a relief that will also be shared with the Scotland back line.
On Friday, they started a significantly less threatening forward line against San Marino, and only grabbed their second and third goals after Mertens and Chadli entered the frame in the second half. To try and pick who Belgium will field from their squad would give anyone a headache, but it's a far more pleasant headache for Martínez to have in contrast to Clarke.
Belgium have favoured a "3-4-3" so far this campaign, so we'll work from that.
The Back 3 and Goalkeeper
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (27yrs), Real Madrid (Esp), 75 caps.
Having moved to Real two summers back and starting all Belgium's games so far this campaign, it's a given we'll be seeing this shot stopper in action on Monday. How much action he'll see is certainly up for debate. Belgium have only conceded one goal all campaign which came in their 3-1 victory over Russia, the fault for which surprisingly lies at the feet of this man. After taking too much time with the ball at his feet he was closed down and forced into releasing it to Cheryshev who slotted home. Scotland could only hope for a couple of gifts like that.
Centre Back: Jan Vertonghen (32yrs), Tottenham Hotspur (Eng), 115 caps.
No secrets here. Jan is a world class centre half. He was part of the Spurs side to reach the Champions League Final and has a 3rd place World Cup medal for his efforts in Russia last year along with most of his counterparts in the current Belgian squad. Nailed on start you’d imagine.
Centre Back: Toby Alderweireld (30yrs), Tottenham Hotspur (Eng), 93 caps.
Having two centre backs who line-up weekly together at a top club is a luxury few national teams have. And the partnership goes back further than Spurs. Having both graduated from the prestigious Ajax youth academy, kicked off their professional careers there, each making well over 100 appearances in the first team. On their honour lists you can also find Eredivisie titles, Champions League runners up, and as mentioned a third place at the 2018 World Cup, accolades they share having won them shoulder to shoulder. Sharing clubs, sharing titles, they both clock in at 6ft2" and probably share a tooth brush while on international duty. Clutching at straws now.
Centre Back: Jason Denayer (24yrs), Olympique Lyonnais (Fra), 11 caps.
When a world class player like Vincent Kompany is absent from the squad, there are big boots to fill. That man's likely to be former Celtic loanee Denayer. After 4 loan spells and zero appearances got Man City he moved on from the north of England to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France and helped Lyon to a 3rd place finish in the league last season, 3pts behind Lille. He'll be competing in the Champions League this season and his side will fancy their chances of making it into the last 16 after landing a group with none of Europe's big bruisers, matching up with Benfica, Zenit and RB Leipzig.
The Engine Room and the Flanks
Right Midfield/Right Wing Back: Thomas Meunier (27yrs), Paris Saint-Germain (Fra), 38 caps.
Plying his trade in Paris, Meunier fits into the Belgium set-up offering a far more attacking element with 6 goals and plenty of assists so far in his international career. In the World Cup he featured in all but two of Belgium's games. Due to a suspension he missed their semi-final defeat to France but returned to score and help sink England to grab third place. This campaign he's started the last two games from Belgium and was on the bench against Cyprus but didn't feature due to injury in the first two games.
Centre Midfield: Youri Tielemans (22yrs), Leicester City (Eng), 24 caps.
Second youngest out of all their call-ups, Youri is probably one of the lesser known names in the Belgian squad. After an initial loan, he moved to Leicester in the summer and has played the full ninety in every match so far for a Brendan Rogers side who are undefeated and sit third, four games into the season. He did start against Scotland in Brussels, and possibly went more unnoticed with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku grabbing the headlines. That match he was alongside Axel Witsel, but he is absent this time around having sustained a hamstring injury while with Dortmund just before the squad announcement. Youri is a big potential and one for the future for Belgium. One to keep an eye out for on Monday night.
Centre Midfield: Kevin De Bruyne (28yrs), Manchester City (Eng), 71 caps.
Cast your mind back to October 2012. It was a Tuesday night and Scotland were in Brussels. At 15 years old, I was watching it on the BBC while my dad had travelled over there for the match. We were defeated 2-0 by a nation who were only beginning to flourish into the golden generation of recent years. After the match I phoned my dad to discuss the game. I was keen to discuss a member of the opposition who caught my eye, a pale ginger 21-year-old who would probably have looked more fitting in a navy-blue jersey. "He's going to be a player" I said, "there's something about him". Now tell you what I must have has a keen eye for a player. At that time, he was on loan at Werder Bremen in Germany from his parent club Chelsea. At the start of the 2013-14 season I added him to my Fantasy Premier League team, a move which didn’t pay dividends as he only featured 3 times for Chelsea before he was moved on to Wolfsburg. Fast forward to the present day, Kevin De Bruyne is a well-known name in any football household. He only stayed for one season in Germany, but it was enough time to win the DFB-Pokal with Die Wölfe and score in the final. A nice good-bye gesture. He moved on to his current club Man City for a Premier League record fee at the time. Since then he’s won two Premier Leagues, one of which was in their incredible treble last season and is widely regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the modern game. Marshall will need to be on his toes anytime this man finds space the ball at his feet within 30 yards.
Left Midfield/Left Wing Back: Yannick Carrasco (26yrs), Dalian Yifang (China), 37 caps.
Playing his club football in China, Yannick is a bit more off the radar in comparison to his national teammates. He has played at the top level in Europe however. He spent three years at Monaco before moving to Madrid where he enjoyed a further three years with Atletico. He scored for them in the Champions League Final, and equaliser against their city rivals, however they went on to lose on penalties. This meant he was the first Belgian to score in a European cup final, an accolade he now shares with Divock Origi after he scored Liverpool’s second in last seasons final. On the international scene he was heavily involved in the World Cup and the Nations League but hasn’t featured as much since during these qualifiers with such steep competition in the squad. This could also have something to do with the level he is competing at in China. With injuries to key players meaning opportunities with wider positions up for grabs, Carrasco played the ninety against San Marino. He’ll be hoping he did enough to keep his place for Monday night.
The Forward Line
Right Wing: Dries Mertens (32yrs), Napoli (Italy), 85 caps.
As mentioned, having fielded a comparably weaker team in San Marino, Belgium will be less likely to take such relaxed approach to Scotland. Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, Mertens starts in our predicted offensive line. At 32 he’s been at the top for a good few years now. His performances at PSV earned him a transfer to Napoli in 2013 where he has remained since. He’s a fan favourite amongst their faithful, and can play anywhere along the front line, and has developed himself into one of the best players in the Serie A in recent years. He’s quick and has an eye for goal, something Andy Robertson will be familiar with having gone toe to toe with him in last season’s Champions League. For Belgium, he started the first three games of the campaign and came off the bench against us and the same against San Marino. He also has 2 goals for his efforts.
Striker: Romelu Lukaku (26yrs), Internazionale Milan (Italy), 81 caps.
Having had quite an up and down career so far, Romelu himself will admit one of his better seasons came under Scotland gaffer Clarke at the Baggies. On a season loan in 2012-13, they both enjoyed success as Lukaku was given his big Premier League break and scored 17 goals in 35 games at only 19-years-old which helped Clarke guide the Birmingham club to their highest ever Premier League finish, coming in at 8th. These fond memories didn’t mean Lukaku was any less clinical in front of goal in our last meeting in Brussels however as he netted a double, something he apologised for to his old boss for after the game. After his time at West Brom he left Chelsea, heading to the blue half of Merseyside. At Everton he scored over 50 goals during his 3 seasons there, before he moved to Manchester United, somewhere he never really settled. Last month it was time to move on again, his new home the blue side of Milan. He didn’t feature against San Marino, so the all-time leading goal scorer for Belgium will be keen to get a run out at Hampden.
Left Wing: Michy Batshuayi (25yrs), Chelsea (Eng), 15 caps.
Harder to pick the final man here, but with 2 goals against San Marino it’s a high possibility Michy will make the cut. With Chelsea receiving a transfer ban, one would have thought it likely Batshuayi would have benefited from such a punishment, however he’s only featured in 8 minutes so far this season, with Abraham and Giroud in front of him on the pecking order. His ability isn’t in doubt thought, with reasonably successful loans to Borussia Dortmund and Crystal Palace, and he’ll be a handful for the Scotland defence if he plays.
Well there it is, the Belgian eleven. As mentioned, there are big players missing and therefore with places up for grabs and a lot of competition, Martínez could turn to multiple players who are more than up to representing the Red Devils. Former Spurs player Nacer Chadli and once Manchester United prodigy Adnan Januzaj both featured in their 4-0 win on Friday and could likely get another cap to add to their list.
Admittedly we’re all probably feeling a bit blue after such a disappointing performance against the Russians. Scotland do strange things when under pressure, so let’s hope Steve Clarke has a few tricks up his sleeve and can rally the boys to an inspiring victory which could kick our campaign back into life, or at very least begin to build momentum for a great escape through the new play-off system. Come on Scotland!