Scotland 0 Belgium 4
If only Harry Potter was an actual person, Scotland would be compelled to have him checked for Pictish genes. That is the incontestable conclusion after a Euro 2020 qualifier which saw Steve Clarke’s team in desperate need of an Expelliarmus spell to subdue He Who Could Not Be Tamed, otherwise known as Kevin De Bruyne.
De Bruyne marked his 71st appearance for the Red Devils by scoring Belgium’s fourth and final goal, for a scoreline that duplicated the outcome of their appearance at the same stadium last September, when they inflicted Scotland’s worst home defeat since 1973. His most significant contribution, however, was to create the goals – for Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Aldeweireld – which left the Scots battered and on the ropes well before the interval offered them a brief taste of sanctuary.
The 4-0 victory of Cyprus over the Group 1 makeweights, San Marino, consigned Scotland to second bottom place while at the other end of the table, a 1-0 win against Kazakhstan in Kaliningrad all but secured Russia a guaranteed second place, to complete a constellation of misadventure for Clarke & Co.
Clarke had hinted at changes and he made four, with John McGinn, James Forrest, Ryan Fraser, and Oli McBurnie on the bench and replaced in the starting line-up by Kenny McLean, Robert Snodgrass, Ryan Christie, and Matt Phillips. Belgium, meanwhile, were also missing a few, although in their case forced by injuries to the Hazard brothers, Vincent Kompany and Dedryck Boyata.
Such losses did not, however, prompt anticipation of a crisis for Roberto Martinez, not with the likes of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Dries Mertens as his front three against a Scottish back four which Clarke would undoubtedly have refreshed had the options been available.
Given that Belgium played a friendly against the Scots at Hampden a year previously, there was no novelty value for curious home supporters in seeing the top rated team in the world, and the defeat by Russia might have demotivated some among the Tartan Army but, although there were swathes of empty seats, the pre-match atmosphere did not indicate a collective depression.
The sight of Leigh Griffiths looking trim and cheerful in the Hampden foyer prompted regret at the absence – temporarily, it is to be hoped – of a striker capable of producing inspired moments, such as his free kick double against England in the World Cup qualifiers in June 2017. Phillips, by contrast, had one goal from 14 prior appearances.
This was not an encouraging statistic for the man tasked with disrupting the Belgian back three of Aldeweireld, Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen and, sure enough, the West Brom striker found pickings lean in the extreme. He was not the only player in dark blue to look crestfallen by the interval.
The preceding 45 minutes consisted of a masterclass by De Bruyne and, to aggravate Scottish pain, the butchery began with a free kick to the home side. When it rebounded from the rampart of yellow jerseys, the ball was gathered in the left-back positions by Mertens, who played a perfect curling ball across the half way line and into the path of De Bruyne.
As he has done so frequently for Manchester City, De Bruyne made straight for the opposition box, one eye on the tracking run being made by Lukaku, who duly received the millimetre-perfect pass which made his low left-foot finish a formality. A dread feeling of predestination swathed Hampden, and Lukaku almost deepened it with a flick off the outside of his left boot which went narrowly over the top.
Midway through the half, Belgium doubled their advantage, as Thomas Vermaelen got in front of three Scottish defenders to rifle home a cross from the right. Just after the half-hour mark it got worse for Scotland, again found wanting at the back when Alderweireld rose to head off the underside of the crossbar for a bounce which was flagged by the assistant referee as having crossed the line.
Between times, Youri Tielemans struck a drive narrowly wide, with Marshall beaten. This opportunity was notable as, unlike all of the goals, the supply had not been provided by De Bruyne.
The maestro had not, though, finished his evening’s work and, by way of a flourish, he concluded the night by scoring of his own account when he drifted off Stephen O’Donnell on the left edge of the Scottish box, before taking a stride to finish with an immaculate curling effort beyond Marshall’s straining fingers and inside the far post.
Scotland’s cause is not forlorn, because they still have the fall back of the play-offs of the European Nations League, but Clarke’s task, if anything, is now greater than the redemption of the mess he inherited from Alex McLeish last May.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Marshall; O’Donnell, Mulgrew, Cooper, Robertson; McLean, McTominay; Snodgrass, Christie, McGregor (Armstrong 67); Phillips (Russell 74). Subs (unused): McLaughlin (g), MacGillivray (g), Forrest, McGinn, McBurnie, Fraser, Bates, Devlin, Russell, Taylor.
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois; Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Meunier, Tielemans, Dendoncker, Chadli (Carrasco 74); Mertens, Lukaku, De Bruyne. Subs (unused): Mignolet (g), Sels (g), Vanaken, Verschaeren, Origi, Janauzaj, Praet, Benteke, Raman, Batchuayi.
Referee: Pawel Gil, Poland.