Five talking points from Scotland – Belgium
The Rode Duivels took a huge leap towards World Cup qualification after an edgy performance at Hampden Park. Steven Defour’s first-half strike calmed Belgium’s nerves, before Everton’s Kevin Mirallas sealed the win just before the full 90 minutes had elapsed. We take a look in-depth at five talking points from the game…
Wilmots’ selection spot on
The riches that Belgian coach Marc Wilmots has at his disposal could be described as a blessing and a hindrance at the same time. Though he had some injury worries leading up to the fixture (Eden Hazard pulling up in training, Nacer Chadli with a slight knock,) Wilmots stuck to his ‘gut feeling’.
Picking Steven Defour ahead of Mousa Dembélé may not have been the populist choice, but ultimately it was the correct decision. The former Standard trio of Defour, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini were flawless and the familiarity the three had playing with each other meant Belgium never really looked losing the midfield battle with Scotland.
There were no mistakes here and the midfield balance was just right, even with the presence of the newest Manchester United signing, who often disrupts the flow.
De Bruyne makes this team tick
The Chelsea midfielder has learnt some tough lessons in his fledgling Premier League career. After dazzling in the first half against Hull City, the former Genk instigator was fairly anonymous in his first trip to Old Trafford (though everyone else may have well as been.) This knock, after José Mourinho’s vote of confidence in keeping De Bruyne part of the Chelsea squad, could have derailed what has been an excellent World Cup qualifiying campaign.
Fortunately, De Bruyne didn’t let his indifferent opening three games distract him from business, stringing together all of Belgium’s brightest moments at Hampden. Fed exceptionally well by Marouane Fellaini, De Bruyne passed, crossed and set-up plenty of opportunities, while also having a few of his own. He even had the audacity to catch Scottish keeper David Marshall off-guard with a cheeky free-kick, which the Cardiff City player tipped over while banging his head on the post.
Steven Whittaker struggled to contained him and De Bruyne strolled to the the man of the match. For someone who has only made 15 appearances for les Diables Rouges, he is undoubtedly the most vital to their continuing success. It has been the very making of an international class player.
Benteke’s reasonably quiet night
Putting transfer stories well behind him after signing a new contract at Villa, Christian Benteke has continued his rampant form in the Premier League, Yet, Belgium’s figurehead had a nondescript evening until he played in Mirallas to secure victory. Russell Martin and Grant Hanley in particular kept tabs on the forward and he struggled to make an imprint on proceedings. This in truth allowed Belgium to dominate on the flanks, with Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli teasing Steven Whittaker and Alan Hutton throughout the game. The newly acquired Spurs winger was chosen for his work-rate ahead of the dribbling ability of others, which paid off, rarely misplacing a pass all evening.
Gordon Strachan was gushing in his praise of Benteke prior to the match but the Villan could only muster one shot on goal all evening. There is no doubt the Scottish manager told his side to stop Benteke from input, but Wilmots chose not to utilise Benteke the way that Villa do – by pumping balls straight to him. That isn’t the national team’s way of thinking, and it does suggest Benteke will have to bend towards the players around him. He did drop deeper to get involving, notably with a lovely flick-on header in the first half, but this one just passed him by. Fortunately for him, Romelu Lukaku didn’t get a chance to showcase his talents, so he isn’t under threat for the foreseeable future.
No Kompany, no problem
The loss of Belgium’s leader at the back should have been a greater detriment than it turned out to be. Aside from his duties with off-field matters as captain, Kompany is often the rock in defence that can’t be penetrated. Elder statesmen Daniel Van Buyten, who scored a famous equaliser the last time Belgium were in Scotland, was reliable, clearing more than any teammate, while Nicolas Lombaerts look assured until he was forced off injured with an ankle injury. Spurs’ Jan Vertonghen continued in his left-back spot and had no real problems all evening once he shook off his ankle problem.
New Atlético Madrid signing Toby Alderweireld was on occasion caught out by pace, but other than that, Belgium never looked like conceding, which perhaps says more about Scotland’s attacking options. The Rode Duivels have now kept six clean sheets in the qualifying stage, more than anyone else in Europe. Given that the first choice back four has no recognised full-backs (Pocognoli did come on as a sub last night) and has been shuffled due to injuries numerous times, this is a fantastic achievement. Wilmots has his boys drilled.
You’ve come a long way, baby
It’s a little over 12 months since Georges Leekens said goodbye to the national setup and the strides Belgium have made are remarkable. Since Wilmots took over in May 2012, Belgium’s overall record reads W9 D2 L2, with both of those defeats coming in friendlies against England and Romania away. It’s little wonder people are earmarking them as ‘dark horses’ or even ‘contenders’ for the World Cup. While this humble writer thinks such talk is frivolous into the draw is made in Rio, it is easy to buy into the argument.
Though a Wilmots’ side has yet to really thrash a side, they’ve been ruthlessly efficient, getting the job done on each occasion. Tonight, the coach opted for control rather than speed over what must be said is an improving Scotland under Strachan.
The pieces are coming together nicely. Belgium need just a point in their next game, in what could have been a tricky group decider in Zagreb in October. This group of players have yet to make a mistep and only complete capitulation against their group rivals and Wales would throw qualification away from here. Belgium, the team and its supporters (who were again brilliant and in strong numbers in Scotland) can begin to dream.