At least they survived the first half. As Belgium opened their World Cup campaign by cruising to victory against a Panamanian side who were completely outmatched by their star-studded opponents, that was the one thing Los Canaleros could cling to, the one positive souvenir of a tough day. For Belgium, it was business as usual despite a slightly-too-casual opening, with Dries Mertens netting a stunning volley and Romelu Lukaku picking up a brace as they dominated the second half and never seemed to get out of first gear.
Panama had been waiting for this day since October last year, and their first half of World Cup football was a success, even if, predictably, it was Belgium who had the first real chances. Jaime Penedo was called into action early on, saving a hard-hit shot from Yannick Carrasco and needing quick reflexes just seconds later to deny a dangerous attempt from Mertens. Shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard intercepted Román Torres’ slightly shallow backpass before it reached Penedo and drilled a shot into the side netting, and it appeared like Panama were about to be suffocated by the weight of Belgium’s opportunities. They weren’t.Embed from Getty Images
Eden Hazard (left) runs away from Gabriel Gómez during the match. Hazard’s control with the ball at his feet caused plenty of issues for the Panamanian defence.
Belgium had chances, of course, like when Kevin de Bruyne’s cross was nearly turned into the Panamanian net by Torres and when Hazard ran straight through the defence and forced Penedo into another fine save. But those chances were too often punctuated by lengthy periods of inaction, where Les Diables Rouges controlled the ball but couldn’t find the urgency to break down their determined opponents. They were approaching the game with all the energy of a Sunday stroll in the park, seemingly waiting for something to happen rather than pushing for it. Hazard threatened, but never really did anything meaningful, and de Bruyne wasn’t getting into good enough positions to take advantage of his incredible vision. Up front, Lukaku was completely anonymous. By half time, the scores were still level, and Panama still hadn’t been seriously tested by an underwhelming Belgian team.
Belgium emerged from half time with more purpose, and it took less than two minutes for them to go ahead thanks to Mertens’ wonder goal. Torres could only clear the Belgian winger’s fairly harmless ball into the box as far as Hazard and Fidel Escobar, and after an aerial contest the ball ended up back where it started, falling to Mertens in the box. Casually, he took on the shot first time, looping the volley towards goal on a tight angle and leaving Penedo with no chance as the unstoppable strike floated into the top corner. It was a remarkable finish, and its difficulty was belied by the nonchalance with which Mertens took the quarter-chance.
With the deadlock broken, Belgian deemed that there was no further need for their top effort. Soon the game slipped back into the lull of the first half, with Belgium controlling proceedings but not quite doing enough to seriously threaten the Panamanian goal. Panama had a golden opportunity almost immediately after Mertens’ goal, but Michael Murillo couldn’t finish against Thibaut Courtois. It was telling that the Belgians didn’t seem too concerned by the possibility of Panama scoring, and Jan Vertonghen was only getting worked up over Carrasco’s dereliction of his defensive duties. It was the best opportunity Panama had for the rest of the match. Around 15 minutes later they doubled their advantage.Embed from Getty Images
Romulu Lukaku celebrates after scoring Belgium’s third goal. Lukaku’s chip over Jaime Penedo was a fitting finish to a dominant Belgian display.
It was the previously quiet Lukaku who was good enough to bag the second after some brilliant build-up play. Hazard started it, once again challenging every defender in sight with one of his pretty but directionless runs, and after engaging three Panamanian defenders he slipped a pass to de Bruyne. What happened next was pure class. Upon receiving the ball, de Bruyne shimmied past Aníbal Godoy, found himself in perfect position and threaded an exquisite cross onto the forehead of the powerful striker with the outstep of his right boot. Like Mertens’ perfect volley, it was a moment of nonchalant brilliance which clearly highlighted the difference between the two sides.
A fast break, a good run from Hazard and an effortless first time chip from Lukaku provided the third goal, but by that point the game was already over. Panama fought up to the final whistle, at times drawing big cheers from their large contingent of supporters when they came close to scoring a historic goal, but they never really stood a chance against Belgium’s second half onslaught. For their part, Belgium only tried as hard as they needed to, and the ease with which they sealed their 3-0 win should sound a warning to any team that will come up against them.
Sochi – Fisht Olympic Stadium
Belgium 3 (Mertens 47, Lukaku 69, 75)
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel (Chadli 90), de Bruyne, Carrasco (Dembélé 74); Mertens (T Hazard 83), Lukaku, E Hazard.
Panama (4-1-4-1): Penedo – Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gómez; Bárcenas (G Torres 63), Cooper, Godoy, J L Rodríguez (Díaz 63); Pérez (Tejada 73).
1. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Hazard came into his own in the second half, playing a big hand in both of Belgium’s goals and looking very dangerous with the ball at his feet. He was always attempting to take on the Panamanian defence, and while they managed to stop him most of the time he had a big impact when he did break through.
2. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku came into his own after a quiet first half, bagging two second half goals and working his way into good positions. He showed an excellent turn of speed in scoring the final goal of the match, and with his freakish athleticism and excellent supporting players it’s scary what he could do if he puts together a full 90-minute effort.
3. Jaime Penedo (Panama)
Penedo had plenty of work to do, especially in the first half, and he made some truly brilliant saves to deny Belgium’s brilliant attackers. He was one of the few Panamanians who didn’t seem slightly out of place against their world-class opposition, and can hold his head high after a strong performance.
4. Dries Mertens (Belgium)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from how easily he seemed to take the chance, but Mertens’ volley to open the scoring could be an early contender for goal of the tournament. Otherwise, he made plenty of dangerous attacking runs and created plenty of problems for Panama’s defence in a solid effort.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne was another of Belgium’s stars who began the game slowly but finished with an excellent second half display. He worked into more advanced positions as the game progressed, and when he got the ball in and around the penalty area he was capable of providing special balls like the assist for Lukaku’s first goal.