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.