Two goals from Romelu Lukaku and a stunning volley from Dries Mertens saw Belgium win their opening World Cup game 3-0 against debutants Panama in Sochi on Monday.
After a goalless opening period which lacked clear-cut chances, it took Mertens just two minutes to open the scoring in the second half.
Manchester United striker Lukaku (69, 75) then netted twice in six minutes to seal an ultimately comfortable win for Roberto Martinez’s men, who top Group G ahead of England’s match with Tunisia.
Panama – who were playing their first World Cup game – did not offer too much in reply, and will face Gareth Southgate’s side in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday.
Belgium: Courtois (7), Alderweireld (6), Boyata (6), Vertonghen (7), Meunier (7), Witsel (7), De Bruyne (7), Carrasco (6), Mertens (8), E Hazard (7), Lukaku (8).
Subs used: Dembele (5), T Hazard (5), Chadli (n/a).
Panama: Penedo (7), Murillo (7), Escobar (6), R Torres (7), Davis (6), Gomez (6), Godoy (6), Cooper (7), J Rodriguez (6), Barcenas (6), Perez (6).
Subs used: G Torres (5), Diaz (5), Tejada (6).
Man of the match: Dries Mertens.
Belgium began the game well, and had their first effort in the seventh minute with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco hammering a shot into the hands of goalkeeper Jamie Penedo before the Panama stopper was forced to push Mertens’ half-volley over the crossbar.
Captain Roman Torres, who scored the goal that sent Panama to the World Cup, nearly made a big mistake to concede the opening goal not long after. A ball was played over the top for Eden Hazard, but Torres got there first and attempted to pass back to his goalkeeper. However, Hazard latched onto the poor pass but could only send a shot into the side netting.
Dedryck Boyata started in Belgium’s defence in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany. Roman Torres, whose goal against Costa Rica in qualifying secured Panama a place in Russia, captained the side from central defence.
But Torres did well in the 21st minute to prevent Belgium from scoring, making a superb block to put Kevin De Bruyne’s pass behind ahead of the waiting Lukaku. 17 minutes later, Penedo was in action again as he made a fine, leaping save to push a fierce Hazard shot around the post.
Belgium took the lead in the 47th minute through a lovely goal from Mertens. A cleared ball landed to the Napoli man at the top right edge of the box and he struck a first-time volley which flew past Penedo and into the far corner.
Panama’s best chance of the game came in the 55th minute, with Thibaut Courtois forced into a smothered save as Michael Amir Murillo latched onto a fine pass over the top, but could not get a shot away with Courtois pouncing on the ball.
Belgium doubld their lead in the 69th minute with Lukaku’s first goal as he met De Bruyne’s superb outside-of-the-foot cross with a powerful header.
Lukaku wrapped up the victory six minutes later. It was a great break from the Red Devils as Witsel set Hazard away through the middle of the park before picking out Lukaku to his left who then made no mistake in slotting the ball home past Penedo.
- Each of the last 11 goals that Belgium have scored in World Cup matches have come after half-time.
- Overall, there were eight yellow cards – the most of any game at the 2018 World Cup so far and also more than in any single game at the 2014 tournament.
- Dries Mertens became the first Belgian player to score in two successive World Cup tournaments since Marc Wilmots (1998 and 2002).
- Only Jan Ceulemans (6) has scored more goals in major tournaments (World Cup & European Championships) for Belgium than Romelu Lukaku (5 – level with Marc Wilmots).
Man of the match – Dries Mertens
Mertens was the bright spark in an otherwise dull first half, often making crosses into the box from the wing even if the final product in the area lacked somewhat. He also scored a fabulous opening goal for Belgium, hammering the ball home from the corner of the area, and will be pleased with his performance in Sochi.
Next up for Belgium is Tunisia on Saturday 23 June at 1pm while Panama will take on England on Sunday 24 June, also at 1pm.