Steve Clarke described his Scotland side as “competitive” after their defeat by Belgium and former national team assistant Peter Houston insisted qualification for Euro 2020 “won’t rest” on results against the world’s highest-ranked team.
But what can we learn from Scotland’s 3-0 loss in Brussels? BBC Scotland takes a look…
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Scotland now have a gameplan
Belgium had scored twice in Cyprus in their opening qualifier, then rattled in three in consecutive home games against Russia and Kazakhstan, but Scotland held firm for the thick end of 45 minutes and only conceded a third in stoppage time.
After just over a week together, the characteristics of a Clarke team are already evident.
Scotland were robust, focused and compact, happy to sit deep and allow the highly regarded Belgians to play in front of them. There was none of the fecklessness of March’s humiliation in Kazakhstan or the listlessness that infected the victory over San Marino. This was a side with a gameplan and the resolve to execute it.
“We looked good structurally in terms of the defence,” said former Scotland midfielder Michael Stewart on Sportscene. “It was a 4-4-2 and Belgium didn’t cut us open too often.
“The players looked comfortable with what they were trying to do.”
Clarke will make bold decisions
The pre-match shock of captain Andy Robertson being out with a hamstring problem eclipsed the fact that Clarke had radically recast the side that edged out Cyprus at Hampden on Saturday.
Out went Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser, second only to Eden Hazard for assists in Europe’s top five leagues this term. So too James Forrest, Scotland’s player of the year. Likewise John McGinn, who will be playing in the Premier League next season. And Clarke’s Kilmarnock protege Eamonn Brophy.
The fact two English top-flight players – Scott McTominay and Stuart Armstrong – could come in as replacements makes it more understandable but, still, this is a manager happy to make bold decisions.
McTominay & McLean make case
McTominay was making only his third start for Scotland, but the 22-year-old was a composed presence at the base of the midfield.
The Manchester United player’s involvement has been sporadic since making his debut against Costa Rica in March 2018 and he will miss the visit of Russia in September through suspension after picking up his second booking of the campaign in Brussels. However, with no stand-out candidate for that defensive role, McTominay has an opportunity to establish himself.
Another with a chance to make himself a fixture is Kenny McLean, who has started the past three Scotland games and impressed in each. The former St Mirren and Aberdeen midfielder will be playing in the Premier League with Norwich City next season and, should he make that step successfully, he will become even harder to dislodge from the XI.
Russia games are crucial
Belgium are gone. They have 12 points from 12 and seem certain to win the group. So if Scotland are to secure automatic qualification for Euro 2020, they will have to overtake the Russians.
The 2018 World Cup quarter-finalists come to Glasgow in September but even a home win would only move Clarke’s men level with Stanislav Cherchesov’s side. Furthermore, Scotland host Belgium three days later when Russia face a Kazakhstan side they have already beaten away from home.
Effectively, then, it seems four points from Russia will be needed to give Scotland a chance of finishing second. Failing that, it’s a Nations League play-off semi-final at Hampden next March, with Finland the likeliest opposition.