Scotland 0-2 Belgium: Wilmots’ choices pay off as Brazil looms large.
Belgian coach Marc Wilmots was richly rewarded for his decision to start with Steven Defour and introduce Kevin Mirallas late on as a 0-2 win over Scotland left the Red Devils one point away from World Cup qualification.
FC Porto midfielder Defour was a surprise pick in the starting eleven but it was to pay off handsomely. The defence was as expected with Nicolas Lombaerts partnering Daniel van Buyten in the middle while Nacer Chadi played on the left due to Eden Hazard’s absence with an Achilles injury.
Wilmots had spoken of his side’s intention to play on the front foot and dictate terms to Scotland. In Kevin De Bruyne he had the ideal man to implement this plan as they enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball and had someone who linked effortlessly with his fellow midfielders and the frequent forward runs of Toby Alderweireld. An early De Bruyne corner was allowed to flash across the Scottish penalty area and the home crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Chadli, who is still finding his feet at Tottenham, was also lively on the left and when he turned Hutton inside out, Fellaini headed wide at the far post in front of his boss at Manchester United, David Moyes. De Bruyne then linked up again with Chadli but his shot was tame and easy for Marshall. Jan Vertonghen received another blow to the ankle he twisted earlier in the week but after some early concerns, was able to carry on.
It wasn’t one-way traffic by any means with Christian Benteke having to make a good challenge inside his own box when Scotland were quicker out of the blocks from a free kick. Nicolas Lombaerts also had to make an important clearance to deny Leigh Griffiths, who has shone at Hampden before.
The opening goal six minutes before the break therefore came at just the right point in the game for the visitors. Benteke flicked the ball on to Fellaini who played De Bruyne in on the right-hand side. The Chelsea man expertly picked out Defour, who finished first time past Marshall, placing the ball beyond the outstretched dive. It was a wonderfully worked team move and unsurprisingly De Bruyne played a key role.
Although Chadli continued to pose plenty of problems for Hutton, Scotland had their moments. Whittaker shot wide when space was left just outside the Belgian box while Anya brought a different dimension down the left but fortunately, Scotland lacked the genuine quality to equalise. Nevertheless, Belgium needed to shake things up and Wilmots plumped for Mirallas, whom many had tipped to start.
An injured Lombaerts made way for Pocognoli and when Vertonghen moved inside, he had to be alert to cover off the run of Rhodes. At the other end, De Bruyne continued to ask questions of the Scottish defence, almost catching Marshall out with a free kick and having a long-range shot parried wide.
Mirallas calmed us all down when he made sure of the three points. Benteke laid the ball through and with Grant Hanley committed. the path was clear for the Everton man to lift the ball past Marshall and into the net. Wilmots was cheering, dancing and singing in the pouring rain – he knew the importance of this victory, especially as Croatia could only draw 1-1 in Serbia. Amazingly, it was Anderlecht striker Aleksandar Mitrovic who pegged the Croatians back. He’ll be warmly welcomed back to Brussels, as will the squad tomorrow morning. Scotland made it difficult and credit must be given to Gordon Strachan’s men but Belgium were resolute and firm as they have been throughout the campaign.
Kevin De Bruyne was my Man of the Match. He has been the best player on this road, which will almost certainly now lead to Brazil next summer. Yet again he was buzzing, at the heart of most good things Belgium did going forward, he was decisive and he continued to cause problems for the Scottish defence when the team needed a pick-me-up. This is a player who shines on the international stage and should be an undisputed first pick at his club. Following closely behind was Axel Witsel. Midfielders who have to come up against him are a proverbial goal down before kick off such is his presence. If Moyes wants to go big in January, he should instruct Ed Woodward to give Zenit a call for Witsel.
Wilmots tweeted after the game thanking the fans for their magnificent, vociferous and good-natured support, telling them to enjoy the moment. There is one question though – where is that new contract for Wilmots?