Scotland wait for Lambert and Matteo

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Drenched in alcohol, bravado and bonhomie in the rainswept, cobbled squares where many England supporters faced water cannon last year, upwards of 10,000 Scotland fans began massing here yesterday ahead of tonight's crucial World Cup qualifier against the Group Six leaders, Belgium, in the King Baudouin Stadium.

Footsoldiers in any army are liable to suffer from sore feet – though the sore "heid" is more common among the tartan brigades – but this time it is Paul Lambert, Scotland's captain in the absence of the suspended Colin Hendry, who is in danger of missing the game because of blisters.

Add the fact that Craig Brown's outstanding performer in Saturday's stalemate with Croatia, Dominic Matteo, has severe ankle bruising and it is evident the Scotland manager may again have to summon his fabled flair for improvisation if they are to reach the finals next summer.

On the eve of a match which, if not quite in the must-win category for Scotland, is certainly one where defeat would see them all but eliminated, Lambert and Matteo sat out the final training session. Brown rates the Celtic midfielder the likelier starter, believing Lambert's high fitness levels will enable him to make light of his inactivity.

"Paul played through the pain barrier against Croatia," explained Brown. "He uncharacteristically made a couple of strange passes, which I couldn't explain until I saw his feet. He should have owned up and admitted the problem – it's no disgrace to be substituted – and he also wanted to train but I overruled him. That's bravery bordering on foolhardiness."

Matteo, whose versatility, pace and poise have made him an important member of the squad just six months after his competitive debut, also limped out of Hampden Park. "Dominic will have to confirm 100 per cent fitness. We're not a club side who can inject him or send him out with excess strapping," Brown said. "He wants to play but the medical people sometimes have to save players from themselves."

In the absence of Lambert, Brown would probably withdraw Hutchison into his natural milieu in midfield. Matteo's place in the back three could be filled by Christian Dailly after Brown hinted strongly at a 72nd cap for Tom Boyd, 36, in the wide-right position where Dailly started on Saturday.

Brown will doubtless use both main strikers, Billy Dodds and Scott Booth, though not necessarily in tandem. It is not his style to go flat out for goals from the start, so one may have to be content to be sent on when, in theory, Belgian legs and minds are tiring.

If he has a tactical ploy up his sleeve for Robert Waseige – who has already named his line-up – it could be to exploit Hutchison's creativity and scoring prowess in a floating role. Jari Litmanen, operating in the "hole", shredded Belgium's defence as Finland beat them 4-1 last month.

That was only a friendly, yet there is little in the record of the Diables Rouges to daunt a Scotland outfit buoyed by a nine-match unbeaten away run. As co-hosts of Euro 2000, Belgium lost to Turkey and Italy without scoring, and Brown watched them struggle to hold Croatia at home.

With Branko Strupar and Emile Mpenza injured (as is the Celtic defender Joos Valgaeren), the onus will fall on Marc Wilmots, who inspired their 10 men to come from 2-0 down to last-gasp parity in Glasgow. Wilmots and Bart Goor are rated the only truly top-class players by Brown in a team he terms functional and lacking in flair. He surprised Belgian scribes with his knowledge of Wesley Sonck, 23, a centre-forward winning his third cap, who has scored six times in Genk's three games.

On the only occasion Scotland avoided defeat in Belgium, in seven visits, they triumphed 5-0 half a century ago when tonight's venue was the now-infamous Heysel. Another victory, however modest, would guarantee at least a play-off spot, provided Latvia are beaten in Glasgow next month – whereas a draw would leave them relying on Croatia to beat Belgium.

Brown, out of contract after the last group fixtures, dismissed talk of his job being on the line. "I'm not sitting here fearful and trembling over my future, because it's not a consideration," he said. "My priority is to achieve the best possible result and get Scotland to the World Cup." If he fails, the criticism will be blistering.

BELGIUM (4-4-2): De Vlieger (Willem II); Deflandre (Lyon), De Boeck (Anderlecht), Van Meir (Standard Liège), Van Kerckhoven (Schalke 04); Verheyen (Brugge), Walem (Standard Liège), Vanderhaeghe (Anderlecht), Goor (Hertha Berlin); Wilmots (Schalke 04), Sonck (Racing Genk).

SCOTLAND (3-5-2; probable): Sullivan (Tottenham); Weir (Everton), Elliott (Leicester), Dailly (West Ham); Boyd (Celtic), Burley (Derby), Cameron (Wolves), Lambert (Celtic), Naysmith (Everton); Dodds (Rangers), Hutchison (Sunderland).

Referee: M E Mejuto Gonzalez (Sp).