The #1 ranked team in the world, with a squad overflowing with world class talent, comfortably picked up 3 points on Tuesday night in a 3-goal victory that saw their greatest ever striker add his 47th and 48th international goals at the age of 26.
In that context, the task facing Steve Clarke’s Scotland side was always going to be a footballing Everest.
However, there were definite positives to take from the game. Scotland played to a clearly defined shape and strategy, holding Belgium goalless until a lapse of concentration in the last seconds of the first half allowed Lukaku to nod home an opener. Belgium added their third in stoppage time at the end of the game, adding the gloss to a hard-earned result.
Here’s the talking points from Brussels:
Steve’s Selection Surprise – Steve Clarke confounded expectations by making 5 changes to the starting lineup from the game against Cyprus. Out went McGinn, Fraser, Forrest and Brophy, replaced by McTominay, Armstrong, Russell and Burke.
Most surprising was the late injury to captain Andy Robertson, deputised at left back by Kilmarnock’s Greg Taylor, making his international debut.
Marshall’s Return from the Wilderness – Before this weekend, David Marshall’s last appearance for his country was a 0-3 loss in Slovakia in November 2016. Returning to the squad under Steve Clarke he provided a solid presence at the back over these two qualifiers. Against Belgium he produced excellent saves from Witsel, de Bruyne and Lukaku.
A Game Played in the Mind – Keeping a team like Belgium out is as much a test of mental strength as it is physical. Scotland were taught this lesson in the most painful way in stoppage time at the end of the first half. Scott McTominay thought the threat had passed for the moment as he nicked the ball from Thorgan Hazard and it rolled towards the by-line. Thorgan’s brother Eden had other ideas and within a second, he had killed the ball before dinking it into the middle for Lukaku to gratefully nod home. A cruel lesson in the dangers of switching off at this level.
Midfield Promise – Scott McTominay and Kenny McLean have 14 caps between them in the heart of Scotland’s midfield. Both players battled hard against Belgium while being relatively neat in possession. Both players will be plying their trade in the English Premier League next season after Norwich’s promotion. Steve Clarke will be hoping their experience at club level will pay dividends for Scotland.
Scotland’s Wide Boys – In Brussels, Scotland grew into the game in an attacking sense in the 2nd half when James Forrest replaced Johnny Russell, giving Scotland two natural wingers after Ryan Fraser replace Armstrong in the first half. Their driving runs helped carry Scotland up the pitch with Fraser playing an exquisite through ball that Scott McKenna really should have scored from late on.
Both players won the player of the year award at their respective clubs this season and if Scotland are to be successful in the remainder of the campaign it’s clear the play from wide areas will be critical.
Elsewhere in Group I: Russia 1-0 Cyprus Kazakhstan 4-0 San Marino
As Scotland did on Saturday, Russia edged a one goal victory over Cyprus, taking them 3pts ahead of Scotland.
Next up – Scotland welcome Russia to Glasgow on 6 September in a match that will surely define Scotland’s hopes of qualification from this group. The loss in Astana makes this one must win for Steve Clarke’s side.
Elsewhere, Belgium travel to San Marino looking to make it 5 wins from 5 while Cyprus welcome Kazakhstan.