Romelu Lukaku double helps Belgium finally break down Panama
Manchester United striker scores two after stunning Dries Mertens volley
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku scores their third goal during the World Cup Group G game against Panama at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
The Panamanian fans were sufficiently lively at the end of this to suggest that even a three-goal defeat fell within the realms of what was acceptable but of more significance is the manner of Belgium’s win.
Two goals from Romelu Lukaku after a memorable opener by Dries Mertens may suggest it was simple by the end but Roberto Martinez’ men were given a game here for an hour or so by a side that showed a little more ambition and ability than might have been expected.
Ultimately, the quality shone through with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne both doing well to set the Manchester United striker up for his goals but there were again signs that the defensive side of the Spanish manager’s system may not be working, with problems glimpsed here that better sides will feel they can punish rather more ruthlessly in the weeks ahead.
Panama will, for their part, simply regret the fact that they could couldn’t quite mark their World Cup debut with a goal. During the national anthems, the emotion of the occasion clearly got the better of some of their fans and when his chance came to put his name in the history books, it seemed to get the better of Michael Murillo too.
In truth Martinez’ side always looked likely winners but they found things tough after a promising start and their coach was, he said, happy with the way they had done it in the end despite Thomas Meunier, Jan Vertonghen and De Bruyne all picking up bookings.
“In a World Cup you need to play for 90 minutes and if you don’t score early on then there are going to be periods where the opposition is going to test you. So this was an opportunity to show maturity, a moment to show composure and real togetherness.
“We know that we have individual talents and they gave us the moments that we saw, but I think that as a team you need to be able to react in such a way as you get the clean sheet, you get through periods that you have to be in the game.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Panama, they gave everything but it was difficult to maintain that for more than 45 minutes, even more so for more than 60. I think what they did in the first half deserves a lot of credit and I think what we did in the second did too.”
Panama certainly brought a little more to the party than might have been expected, winning almost every defensive header through the first hour and looking to drive forward from midfield whenever they had the opportunity.
They really should have had a goal when Edgar Barcenas found Murillo who had left Yannick Carrasco napping 30 yards away in space inside the area but the right back couldn’t quite find a way past Thibaut Courtois.
“I don’t think he had much angle to score and I made made a good save,” said the goalkeeper, keen to play down the significance of an incident that again called into question the wisdom of Belgium’s three-man defence and use of the attack-minded Carrasco as a left wing back. Here, he was replaced with 20 minutes to go and if there was a viable alternative that did not involve a change to the formation, one suspects he would struggle to get back in.
Still, insisted, Eden Hazard, who laid on one of Lukaku’s goals, they have achieved most of what they wanted to in their opening game of the tournament.
“I think we can do better, we can do better yeah,” he said with a smile, especially from the first half but we saw in the second half that when we play together, when we defend together, we can score goals – that’s the most important thing in football.
“People say that Belgium will win every game but it’s not so simple. I think they have good players, strong players, they play with their qualities, that’s why we had some problems in the first half, but at the end of the game the result is 3-0 so we are happy.”
Key Panamanian defender Roman Torres was clearly less so but he said: “Belgium are a very technical side, and they showed that in the second half. We did very well to keep them under control, though. We will have to do the same against England [on Sunday], but we will make sure we use our strength against theirs.”
PANAMA: Penedo; Murillo, R Torres, Escobar, Davis; Gomez; Barcenas (G Torres, 64 mins), Cooper, Godoy, Rodriguez (I Diaz, 64 mins); Perez (Tejeda 73 mins).
BELGIUM: Courtois; Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne, Witsel (Chadli, 90 mins), Carrasco (Dembele, 74 mins); Mertens (T Hazard, 83 mins), Lukaku, Hazard.
Ref: J Sikazwe (Zambia).