Steve Clarke says a third-place finish has to be the aim after Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign produced another miserable night.
Group leaders Belgium cantered to a 4-0 win at Hampden to leave the Dark Blues second bottom of Group I – above only San Marino and below Cyprus.
They are now nine points behind second-placed Russia with four pool matches to play, rendering an already desperate situation hopeless.
Clarke’s team will now hope to find form ahead of the Nations League play-offs in March, which could provide a back door to next year’s championships.
Scotland, who haven’t reached a major tournament since 1998, were a goal down after nine minutes. Ex-Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku finished a rapid break, before Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld punished limp set-piece defending to make it three by half-time.
Man of the match Kevin De Bruyne, who set up all of the first half goals, made it four when he curled past David Marshall late in the second period.
Downbeat Clarke, who stressed “it’s very difficult to try to sell positives when you’ve lost 4-0 at home” said at full-time: “The group’s over in terms of qualification.
“What we have to do now, and we spoke about it after the game, is to improve our position.
“It doesn’t look very good where we are in the table just now, between now and the end of this qualifying campaign we need to make sure we finish third in the group.
“It’s important in terms of rankings and seedings and things, but it’ll mean we’ve performed well, picked up points and should give us confidence going into the (Nations League) play-off games.”
The manager was disappointed a team of Belgium’s ingenuity and threat were able to score unhindered from three set-plays, one of which belonged to Scotland and was deep in the visitors’ half.
Clarke said: “You have to address the result, 4-0 is not a good scoreline.
“We shot ourselves in the foot first half. We get a set-piece and 10 seconds later we’re 1-0 down after nine minutes.
“It was a decent nine minutes, we started on the front foot again and pressed well.
“Then two set-pieces, two corner kicks, we’re heavily punished.
“We spoke before the game, when you play against a team of Belgium’s quality who can score from open play, it’s imperative they don’t score from set-plays.
“To concede from three set-plays, we find ourselves 3-0 down having played some good football in the first half.”
On these frailties at dead balls, Clarke was doubly frustrated having been happy with this element of Scotland’s play during Friday’s loss to Russia.
He said: “It’s something we have to look at and address. It comes down to individual battles when you’ve got one v ones.
“We’ll have to look at the shape defensively on set-plays and see how we can improve.
“What we had wasn’t good enough.
“In the last game against Russia, who also had some big players, we actually defended set-plays quite well.”
Clarke made four changes from Friday’s 2-1 loss against Russia, but even with ex-Dons Ryan Christie – who got pass marks – and Kenny McLean, as well as Matt Phillips and Robert Snodgrass coming in for James Forrest, John McGinn, Oli McBurnie and Cove-native Ryan Fraser, it was another chastening defeat.
Scotland still need to go to Moscow, before welcoming San Marino next month.
There’s then an away trip to Cyprus and group-closer against Kazakhstan in Glasgow during November.
Asked if he saw any positives from last night, Clarke said: “If people look at the game and certain aspects.
“The way we passed the ball and tried to press a very good team – we got it right.
“There were moments in the game where we looked like we could be a decent team given time to grow.”