The outcome of this Euro 2020 qualifier may never have been in any serious doubt before kick-off given the vast gulf in standard between the two teams involved. But the ease with which Belgium triumphed still made for thoroughly depressing viewing for anyone of a Scotland persuasion. The magnitude of the task facing their new manager looks even greater than was first feared.

Steve Clarke had admitted it would take an exceptional performance from his side to take anything from the encounter with Roberto Martinez’s team. But their celebrated opponents experienced little difficulty recording an emphatic away win. Three goals from Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld in little over half an hour effectively killed off the fixture as a contest. A late Kevin De Bruyne strike completed the rout.

It was small mercy the margin of victory was only four at the end of the 90 minutes. That said, the final result was the worst this country has suffered in a competitive match at home. Arithmetically, they can still finish runners-up in Group I and progress automatically. But the play-offs are now their only realistic chance of securing a place in the finals.

Clarke has much to ponder before the meeting with second-placed Russia in Moscow next month. The national team failed to create any chances of note up front and were repeatedly cut open at the back by technically and tactically superior players. They will not face many better teams going forward. Still, the paucity of their performance was highly alarming all the same.

Clarke, as promised, made extensive alterations to his starting line-up. Out went James Forrest, John McGinn, Oliver McBurnie and, surprisingly given how well he had fared three days earlier against Russia, Ryan Fraser. In came Kenny McLean and Robert Snodgrass in midfield and Ryan Christie and Matt Phillips further forward. They lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation.

But what difference could the changes really make? The visitors, third in Russia 2018 last summer and currently on top of the FIFA World Rankings, were always, even without Eden and Thorgan Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Axel Wizel present, going to be a class apart.

Scotland started promisingly. They controlled early possession, McLean combined well with Callum McGregor on the left flank and Andy Robertson forced Thibaut Courtois into a save when he squared across the face of his goal. The excitement in the stands grew every time a player in a dark blue jersey touched. But the sense of optimism proved short-lived.

Belgium took the lead in a flash against the run of play with their first foray upfield. Their front line comprised £150 million worth of talent in Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens and the three of them combined in devastating fashion in the ninth minute to open the scoring after a clearance out of their defence.

Mertens pinched the ball from Stephen O’Donnell and picked out De Bruyne deep in the opposition half with an inch-perfect pass. With the home defence cruelly exposed, his team mate supplied the rapidly advancing Lukaku who gave David Marshall no chance. It was the forward’s 49th international goal.

De Bruyne provided the assist once again for the second in the 24th minute after a short corner. Thomas Vermaelen was the beneficiary of his accurate delivery on this occasion. The centre half forced his way in front of Liam Cooper and chipped beyond Marshall and into the roof of the net.

It was a soft goal to give away. But more of the same was to follow eight minutes later. Toby Alderweireld outmuscled Charlie Mulgrew to get on the end of a De Bruyne corner and headed off the underside of the crossbar. Assistant referee Marcin Borkowski spotted it had landed a good yard over the goal line and flagged for another goal.

Scotland striker Phillips tested Courtois from long-range after that, but Belgium could easily have built on their lead before half-time had they been more ruthless in the final third. Youri Tielemans volleyed just wide after a mistake by Cooper, Vertonghen struck the side netting and Marshall saved from Lukaku.

Clarke put on Stuart Armstrong for McGregor in the 68th minute and the replacement made an immediate impact on proceedings by whipping a cross in to Phillips in the Belgium area which his compatriot just failed to connect with. Johnny Russell then came on for Phillips and McGinn took over from Christie in the closing stages.

But by that point Belgium were cruising. You sensed if they had wanted to step up a gear and score a few more they could have quite easily. Marshall tipped a Mertens attempt wide and De Bruyne went close. The latter got his name on the scoresheet with six minutes or regulation time remaining after receiving the ball from Lukaku and curling a first-time shot into the bottom right corner.

Scott McTominay picked up a second-half booking to rule him out of Scotland’s next outing. But with his country now nine points adrift of the second-placed side in fifth spot with four games left his absence will make little difference.