Belgium clinically dismantled Tunisia 5-2 to secure progression into the last-16 as doubles from Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard were topped off by substitute Michy Batshuayi’s late strike.
Having fought so gallantly against England in their Group G opener, Tunisia were torn apart with Dylan Bronn’s first-half header and Wahbi Khazri’s injury-time goal mere consolations.
Roberto Martinez will now aim to consolidate top spot in the group when they take on European rivals England on Thursday.
Here, we examine the things learned from the Otkritie Arena in Moscow.
LUKAKU’S BOOT CAN BE GOLDEN
Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is at the World Cup working as a pundit for Russian television and while he won’t take much away from Martinez’s defensive deficiencies, he might in how to get the best out of Lukaku.
Indeed, the big Belgian is a different demon for the other devils.
At United, too often last season the 25-year-old was forced to play with his back to goal as the boot of David De Gea provided the only real consistent route to the No9.
But Belgium, albeit with two of the best creative talents on the planet in Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, are proving with genuine quality from the wide areas and penetrative passing through the middle, that Lukaku is a weapon on land or in the air.
There’s been a disconnect at United with the midfield creative hub unplugged and as a result he’s been left isolated, required to create his own chances. But Lukaku’s movement off the last man is supremely well-timed and intelligent – his piercing pace an underrated asset, too.
He showed this and more to move level with Cristiano Ronaldo on four goals in the golden boot race with his double against Tunisia.
For the first, he shaped to cut inside and then drifted left of his man to open up space for Dries Mertens to thread into his path before drilling a low and lethal left-footed strike across goal.
The second, Lukaku timed his dart into the box perfectly with Thomas Meunier cutting the ball back before he delicately dinked the ball over the onrushing Farouk Ben Mustapha.
Given he is a player not truly appreciated for country – and club – his record of 40 goals in 71 games is remarkable. He’s by far Belgium’s record scorer and is still going.
Stretch the mark even further in Russia, and his boot will be golden beyond metaphor. Ronaldo has a battle on his hands.
KDB THE QUIET ASSASSIN
Statistics can be a horrible veil over the mastery of De Bruyne – maths and art polarising subjects where the Belgian genius is concerned.
After all, stats formed such a strong argument in favour of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah for the PFA Player of the Year gong when perhaps beyond the numbers De Bruyne was the more deserving.
And that argument was reinforced by exquisite display in the Tunisia victory because the figures will have you believe Lukaku and Hazard were the standouts.
The 26-year-old failed to register an assist or a goal, yet he was the architect of destruction. It’s the subtleties of De Bruyne you appreciate most, his deceiving body shape to hide ball from man, how he eyes up a passing lane to his left then springs the ball right and the graceful glide into space.
He is the ultimate quiet assassin with a very particular set of skills which are a nightmare for opponents because he will look for the pass, he will find you and if for better finishing, Belgium will kill.
Tunisia were taken down by De Bruyne, even if the numbers don’t do him justice because once Martinez moved him out of the No6 slot and further up the pitch – he is wasted in a deeper role – the Manchester City midfielder’s precision passing routinely sliced up a helpless victim.
DEVILS HAVE THEIR DEMONS
The Red Devils are set up to devour sides like Tunisia and Panama so how much can we glean from their opening pair of victories?
The true test will inevitably arrive in the last-16 – Martinez indicating he’ll rest players against England – because Belgium still look fallible defensively.
There are obvious weaknesses but they are so entertaining to watch because goals are guaranteed, although, at both ends.
They were pegged back from a set-piece with no clear plan to mark the Tunisians as Khazri’s free-kick was easily headed home by Bronn.
And while battered, the north Africans had their chances with the full-back areas exploited repeatedly, Khazri scoring late on after dispatching Hamdi Nagguez’s cross from the right.
Belgium will be incapable of shut-outs against the bigger sides so they will be heavily reliant on their talent at the other end if they are to progress far in Russia.
Stakes are high as Portugal prepare for their final World Cup group game against Iran in Saransk on Monday.
Portugal are level on four points with Spain in Group B and need at least a draw against Iran to guarantee a place in the knockout phase.
“We have watched games contested by Iran as well as other games. We’ve reached the conclusion that there won’t be easy games in this World Cup,” said defender Dias.
“It will be a game in which we must start fighting from the start.”
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The Stoke City winger and Arsenal midfielder scored the goals in the come-from-behind victory in Kaliningrad, after Aleksandar Mitrovic had headed the Serbs into the lead.
The duo, both of Kosovar-Albanian heritage, are believed to have used an Albanian nationalist symbol to celebrate their goals.
Xhaka, whose father was imprisoned in the former Yugoslavia after protesting for Kosovan independence, celebrated his stunning second-half equaliser by locking his open hands together at the thumbs and ‘flapping’ his fingers.
The gesture resembles – and is understood to be a reference to – the two-headed eagle on Albania’s national flag.
Jovan Surbatovic, the general secretary of the Football Association of Serbia, said on Saturday that the organisation intends to write a complaint to FIFA regarding the matter.
Shaqiri, who was born in Kosovo and plays with the Kosovan flag stitched into his right boot with the Swiss flag on his left, celebrated in the same manner after scoring a 90th-minute winner.
The celebrations run the risk of inflaming tensions between ethnic Albanians and nationalist Serbs in Kosovo and beyond.
Kosovo’s Albanian-majority political institutions declared independence from Serbia in 2008. A decade on, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.
Xhaka and Shaqiri could face punishment from football’s governing body FIFA, if their celebrations are deemed to be displays of political symbols.
Shaqiri put his reaction to his late winner down to emotion. “I think in football you have always emotions,” the 26-year-old said.
“You can see what I did and I think it’s just emotion. I’m very happy to score this goal. It’s not more. I think we don’t have to speak about this now.”
Vladimir Petkovic, Switzerland’s Bosnian-born head coach, suggested his players were caught in the heat of the moment and hoped the celebrations would not detract from his side’s victory.
“You should never mix politics and football. It’s clear that emotions show up and that’s how things happen,” he said.
“I think we all together need to steer away from politics in football and we should focus on this sport as a beautiful game and something that brings people together.”