Centre forward Romelu Lukaku grabbed an impressive double as a much-improved second-half performance from Belgium earned an ultimately comfortable 3-0 victory over tournament debutants Panama in Monday’s World Cup opener at Fisht Stadium.
A moment of inspiration from Napoli forward Dries Mertens set the Belgians on their way two minutes after the break, his sensational volley breaking the deadlock in staggering fashion after a flat first half.
Manchester United’s Lukaku then headed in City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne’s stylish cross and chipped in from captain Eden Hazard’s assist to secure victory in this Group G-match, with the Central Americans succumbing to a defeat in their first-ever outing at the finals.
DRAWBACK OF BELGIUM’S 3-4-2-1 SYSTEM
Roberto Martinez is stubbornly wed to his three-at-the-back set-up and while in theory it should be most effective against sides who sit in, the first half proved there are deficiencies.
The two wing-backs, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier, were far too deep when Belgium pushed on and it meant they were bereft of width with Mertens and Hazard practically falling over each other through the middle.
The other issue is the double pivot. De Bruyne and Alex Witsel virtually sat in front the back three and it created a huge chasm from the first receiver into the attacking third.
De Bruyne, who has been magnificent as a No8 for Manchester City this season, was left spraying inaccurate diagonal balls from deep and his first-half pass success rate of 76 per cent was seven per cent down on his Premier League average last term.
And it created a chain reaction because that then meant service into Lukaku was in short supply and it was no wonder the big Manchester United forward only touched the ball seven times in the opening half.
Belgium possess a plethora of creative talents, but it’s no use to Lukaku if they are too far away from him.
Perhaps four at the back would free up an extra body in attack or indeed provide a natural partner for Lukaku. But regardless, it’s something for Martinez to consider.
Add to that the fact Belgium lacked effort, endeavour, speed of passing and movement off the ball and you can’t help but wonder if the players truly believe in the system.
Granted, they were improved after the break but that owed more to individual brilliance than a collective rally with the limited Panama tiring in the latter stages.
LUKAKU IN THE GOLDEN BOOT HUNT
In Brazil, Lukaku could only manage two goals but he’ll be delighted to have equalled that tally already.
Panama on paper offered the perfect foil for the Belgian to get his tournament campaign off on the right foot with his left foot.
His first was a delightfully placed header following intricate work from first Eden Hazard and then De Bruyne who deliciously lifted the ball into the box with the outside of his right foot.
It will be of some concern it took until the 69th minute for De Bruyne to find his first successful pass to the No9 but nevertheless, it was worth the wait.
There was little delay before Lukaku had a second, though, the 25-year-old expertly holding his run off the last man before dinking a masterful chip over the onrushing Jaime Penedo in the 75th minute.
Lukaku is just one behind top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo and with Tunisia up next and the striker clearly in fine fettle, you can expect him to bloat his goalscoring column with the Golden Boot a genuine possibility.
It’s now 21 goals in his last 19 Belgium games and it’s fair to say the big man has arrived.
PANAMA ARE NO PUSHOVERS
In a sense, the 3-0 scoreline is a bit of a disservice to Panama.
Admittedly, the Central Americans are very limited, one paced and offer very little going forward but as tournament debuts go for a relative minnow, they deserve credit for a spirited performance.
Hernan Dario Gomez’s men deservedly went into the break at 0-0 as Belgium struggled to make inroads through their compact and disciplined 4-5-1 set-up.
A sumptuous volley from Mertens immediately after half-time could have opened the floodgates, but they held firm until the quick-fire double from Lukaku.
And even then they refused to buckle, instead, showing more enterprise to get on the scoresheet with substitute Luis Tejada unlucky to connect with an Eric Davis cross.
Panama were gutsy and they made Belgium toil for their victory.
Belgium recovered from a drab first half to power past Panama 3-0 in the World Cup Group G opener.
Dries Mertens broke the deadlock with a sensational volley two minutes into the second half.
Kevin De Bruyne’s excellent outside-of-the-boot cross for Romelu Lukaku doubled the advantage for Roberto Martinez’s men in the 69th minute.
Six minutes later, Eden Hazard set up the Manchester United striker for his second on the counter-attack that sealed the points for the Red Devils.
Thibaut Courtois 7 – Had a few saves to make, most of them routine but needed to come off his line and smother an attack late on. Was alert to tip a spectacular effort from Panama’s half over the bar but the whistle had already gone.
Toby Alderweireld 6 – Was excellent with the ball at his feet, making more passes (102) than anyone else on the pitch. Was solid at the back and made a couple of good tackles.
Dedryck Boyata 6 – Playing in the middle of a three-man defence, Boyata gave a good account of himself and dominated in the air, winning eight aerial duels – the most in the game.
Jan Vertonghen 6 – Was left for dead by Barcenas on one occasion and did pick up a clumsy booking as well. Sprayed the ball around well though with nine of his 11 long passes finding their targets.
Thomas Meunier 5 – Was unfortunate to pick up a booking in the first half. Didn’t push up the pitch enough and when he did, his delivery let him down with all of his five attempted crosses intercepted.
Kevin De Bruyne 7 – Was uncharacteristically sloppy with his passing in the first half but came into his own in the second. His sumptuous cross with the outside of his boot for Lukaku’s first was a thing of beauty.
Axel Witsel 5 – Was a bit of a nothing performance from him. Didn’t make many defensive contributions as Panama’s long balls bypassed him mostly. Safe with his passing. Belgium could’ve used a more creative midfielder in his stead.
Yannick Carrasco 6 – Concerns over his defensive frailties persist but was a force in attack. Linked up well with Hazard at times and had a low effort on target.
Dries Mertens 7 – Had a few efforts at goal and scored a contender for the goal of the tournament with a fine dipping volley which his side desperately needed after being frustrated in the first half.
Eden Hazard 8 – Always looked the most likely to create a chance. Went on a few good runs in the first half only for them to fizzle out. Created a host of chances before his through ball for Lukaku’s second.
Romelu Lukaku 8 – Was isolated up front in the first half, only registering seven touches but always looked dangerous with his movement. Came alive with a bit of service to score a brace. Classy finish for his second.
Mousa Dembele 5 – Replaced Carrasco as Belgium switched to four at the back and went on the counter. Saw the game out.
Thorgan Hazard N/A – Came on for Mertens in the 83rd minute. Dwelled on possession and eventually lost it on one occasion when the break was on.
Nacer Chadli N/A – Was brought on in place of Witsel in the final minute.
Sweden earned a hard-fought win against South Korea in the two teams’ World Cup opener on Monday.
Captain Andreas Granqvist slotted home a penalty after a long VAR consultation by the referee to give Sweden a 1-0 victory that took them to joint-top place in Group F alongside Mexico.
Here’s a look at the talking points from the game.
SWEDEN CONTINUE TO BATTLE FOR RESULTS
Sweden’s qualification for the World Cup was built on the back of fighting displays, and although South Korea aren’t the same as vanquished play-off opponents Italy, the same quality was on show on Monday.
In a game where they dominated possession, which can subdue a team’s battling qualities, Sweden found a way to bring out their best, tiring Korea out with their efforts and discipline. Sweden may not overwhelm teams, but they can wear them down.
It’s a formula that brought them to the World Cup, and now that they are joint-leaders of their group, that same formula can lead them further.
SON CAN’T GO IT ALONE
Heung-min Son bears a heavy burden for his national team. Short of the quality of team-mates he has at club level with Tottenham, he has to serve as chief creator, main goalscoring threat, and inspirational totem all in one.
Perhaps the awareness of his responsibility weighs him down, or he’s simply trying to figure out how to adapt to it, but on Monday he tried too hard to live up to the expectation placed upon him. It seemed as if he’d decided that going it alone was his best option. But for Korea to succeed, he’ll need to trust his team-mates more.
SWEDEN NOW SEE ROUTE TO KNOCKOUT STAGES
Mexico’s win over Germany threw this group wide open, and Monday’s match was a case of seeing which team would be able to take advantage. Sweden grabbed the opportunity with aplomb, and now they’ll be fancying their chances to qualify for the knockout stages.
Even if Germany weren’t struggling, a Sweden side that beat Italy to get to the World Cup would have gone into their next game with confidence. As it is, the champions seem to be vulnerable, and Sweden can think about more than just escaping with a point. A win would all but seal qualification.