When it comes to finding a way of falling out of contention to reach the World Cup this was the equivalent of being hurled at full force through a window: painful and messy. The massive performance that Scotland and Craig Levein needed – to prolong their campaign and his own survival as manager – was simply never allowed to materialise. Belgium utterly outclassed them.
If Levein had dared to think he was about to somehow deliver the best competitive result of his management, an away draw against the vibrant young group leaders, it was snatched from him by goals from Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany in the 68th and 70th minutes. They deserved them. Levein has had unlucky moments over his 24 games but his team led a charmed life for most of a relentlessly torrid interrogation in Brussels.
Scotland can feel sorry for themselves about missing the 2014 finals in Brazil but particular sympathy is due to Allan McGregor, whose outstanding first-half saves kept them on life support. Desperate, hard-working defending kept the Belgians out for a while, too, but it would have been a travesty if the hosts had been denied.
It is over to the Scottish Football Association now. Levein's position is surely untenable after taking just 13 points from 36 in competitive games and winning just one of his last seven fixtures. Horribly, there is even the humiliation of sitting bottom of Group A. There was no shame in losing to Belgium but he needed a result and performance to turn the tide and Brussels witnessed only the extension of a series of drab, joyless qualifiers which have yielded next to nothing.
Belgium play with the style and fluency Scotland would wish for themselves. What danger they posed across their front five, each of them showing pace, nimble footwork, awareness and pace. Their technique was excellent too. First it was Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli taking on Alan Hutton and Gary Caldwell on the Scottish right. Suddenly Hutton's lack of a single minute of club football since May looked more worrying than ever. After just two minutes Belgium thrashed three shots at McGregor in the space of 10 seconds, each drawing an outstanding save. Scotland immediately knew what they were in for.
If it wasn't Mertens and Chadli coming at them, it was Kevin de Bruyne, Moussa Dembele or Benteke. McGregor pulled off heroics to keep Scotland in the game although a degree of over-elaboration from Marc Wilmots' team played a factor too. Often the class of their build-up play wasn't complemented by clinical finishing.
But they came at Scotland in waves. Jan Vertonghen fired a shot over the bar, Chadli tried an effort, then Dembele, then Mertens. When McGregor failed to deal with a De Bruyne cross fate smiled on him because neither Chadli nor Benteke could capitalise.
Scotland simply couldn't get the ball away. Time and time again they hacked it only a few yards in front of their own penalty area, meaning the end of one Belgian attack was followed by the beginning of a new one. A persistent failing in Scottish footballers – the inability to keep possession under pressure – undermined yet another performance.
Somehow they survived until half-time, even emerging a little as the opening half unfolded. Amid this bombardment Scotland did manage to not only break upfield but give the Belgian goalkeeper some work. They got a couple of free-kicks around 25 yards from goal and both Shaun Maloney and Kris Commons struck excellent efforts which forced Thibaut Courtois into diving saves. In truth they amounted to brief reprieves but, still, either could have resulted in a goal.
Otherwise Steven Fletcher could not get into the game. He was starved of possession and whenever he got the ball it was quickly removed from him by Kompany or any of his lieutenants. Commons, Maloney and James Morrison were under too much pressure to supply him.
Commons made way for James Mackie at half-time, giving the team a forward with a bit more pace who might offer relief by doing more to chase clearances. Belgium made a change, too: Eden Hazard, the £30m Chelsea man, coming on for Dembele. The King Baudouin crowd was unhappy that he hadn't been unleashed on Scotland from the start.
For the few thousand Scots the white-knuckle ride continued. A Benteke header hit the bar, a vicious Hazard shot was blocked and later he fizzed a free-kick just past. For a nanosecond it looked as though Steven Fletcher had got a break of the ball, but Kompany put had the pace to recover.
The home support began to get tetchy with Scotland, with McGregor booked for taking too long at a goal-kick. The game had inched towards a stage where Scotland dared to imagine holding on, and then, at last, the dam broke. De Bruyne crossed for Benteke and he beat Christophe Berra and Danny Fox to head in. Kompany twisted the knife minutes later, lashing a tremendous shot into the net.
Levein then had about 25 minutes left to endure. Human nature suggests he would have disconnected from the play at moments and contemplated that he was likely watching his last football as Scotland manager. By then the team was bleakly going through the motions, as they must do through six more qualifiers.