The gulf in class between the two European teams in Group G (England and Belgium) and the other two teams (Tunisia and Panama) makes the opening games in the group very important. Would Panama be able to make up in organisation, grit and work-rate that they lack in quality coming up against this Belgian side riddled with proven talent? The opening 20 minutes played out as expected with De Rode Duivels dominating possession and forcing Los Canaleros into some last-ditch defending. Exposing the space down both flanks, the Belgians looked threatening: after a clever dummy from Eden Hazard, the ball landed at the feet of Yannick Carrasco who saw his shot saved by Jaime Penedo; not long later Dries Mertens tried to pick out Romelu Lukaku lurking unmarked at the back post but he was foiled by a brilliant interception from Roman Torres, who poked the ball wide of the upright for a corner. The Belgians failed to make the most of a number of corners as the resolute Panamanian defence held strong. A lack of urgency and desire saw the game peter out to half-time without any clear-cut opportunities for Roberto Martínez’s side to take the lead.
Hernán Darío Gómez would have probably liked to have skipped half-time as it turned out to be his side’s worst nightmare. Within two minutes of the restart, a lapse in concentration at the back allowed time and space for FC Napoli striker Dries Mertens to pounce on a loose ball in the penalty area and loop the ball expertly over the diving Penedo. It turned out to be a significant turning point in the game, signalling the floodgates to open. A sublime outside-of-the-boot Kevin De Bruyne cross from the left was met powerfully by Lukaku with a diving header from six yards out – the ball flying past a helpless Penedo once again just ten minutes after the forst goal. Disappointment and naivety crept into the Panamanian side who needlessly started to force and turnover the ball, drastically exposing their backline on the counter. Eden Hazard wasted no time in driving into the Panama half and pick out the run of Lukaku, who doubled his tally with a lovely dink over Penedo to make it 3-0. The brave Los Canaleros did have their moments – the imperious Michael Murillo darting past Carrasco to collect a long ball in behind the Belgian defence, forcing Courtois to rush off his line and make an important save with his legs. They never stopped having a crack, joint all-time leading scorer Luis Tejada just failing to get on the end of a delightful swinging cross from Armand Cooper from the left. But in the end, the Belgians didn’t need to get out of second gear and this was a comfortable victory for De Rode Duivels. More difficult challenges lay ahead for them, and critics will no doubt highlight that there are a few questions that remain uneasily unanswered. Panama will be pleased with their application for much of this game. Embracing one another at the end in a circle of prayer, they will learn from this and come out stronger against England in their second game in the group.
Man of the Match: Romelu Lukaku (BEL)
Best: Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Thomas Meunier (BEL), Román Torres, Michael Murillo, Armando Cooper (PAN)