The first-half proceedings did not come as a major surprise, as Panama stuck together and worked for each other in building a wall that Belgium’s talented individuals were unable to breach. Though lacking imagination, Les Diables Rouges still created the clearest chances, with Panama captain Roman Torres working wonders to put a dangerous cross from Kevin De Bruyne out for a corner with 22 minutes gone.
Frustrated and empty-handed at the break, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens returned reinvigorated, not least the Napoli man, who had the Belgium fans cheering when he fired a sumptuous volley past Jaime Penedo just two minutes into the second half. Having finally taken the lead, the men in red found their rhythm and the space in which to express themselves, with Lukaku getting in on the act. After opening his account with a header from a superb De Bruyne cross, he coolly clipped the ball home following a penetrating Hazard run. At last Belgium could breathe easy, their World Cup campaign safely under way. As for Panama, they will need to up their game when they take on England and Tunisia.
Belgium’s individual strengths made up for their failings at a collective level, as they took control of a match without ever producing their best football. That said, winning when not at your best is an attribute that every great side possesses.
It was a match of two halves for Panama. After a promising opening 45 minutes, their man-to-man marking let them down in the second half, with Belgium taking full advantage to pick up the three points. Panama’s lack of precision ultimately cost them dear.
Romelu Lukaku’s exemplary finishing made Belgium’s victory look more emphatic than it actually was. The striker’s prowess in front of goal made all the difference, as he became the first Belgian to score a World Cup brace since Marc Wilmots achieved the feat against Mexico at France 1998.
Belgium’s last victory by two goals or more at the world finals was a 3-1 defeat of Uruguay at Italy 1990. Les Diables Rouges do not have a history of winning big in the competition, but after recording some impressive scorelines in the qualifiers they kept their momentum going against the Panamanians.
What’s next Belgium-Tunisia, Group G, 23 June, Moscow England-Panama, Group G, 24 June, Nizhny Novgorod
Following an absence of 12 long years, Sweden marked their return to the FIFA World Cup in style in the opening match of Group F. The desire of Janne Andersson’s charges was there for all to see as they emerged victorious over a disappointing Korea Republic.
The Swedes were rewarded for an enterprising performance in which they created a series of goal-scoring chances. As much due to their own profligacy as to the opposition back-line, the hoards of Scandinavian fans in Nizhny Novgorod were made to wait until the second half before the deadlock was broken.
The Taeguk Warriors conceded a penalty in the 65th minute following confirmation by VAR, and Swedish captain Andreas Granqvist shouldered the responsibility, coolly converting the resulting spot kick.
Korea Republic pushed hard to find a way back into the game, but to no avail. Their disappointing series of results at the World Cup continues: they have now gone six matches without a win, a run that dates back to their victory over Greece in 2010.
Creating goal-scoring chances had been the main concerns surrounding the Swedish team ahead of this game. Carving out opportunities would not prove to be the problem, as the players were clearly eager to prove their critics wrong, but the ball did not want to go in, and in the end it took a penalty kick to secure the three points. A strong start for Sweden showed that they prepared well for their return to the global stage.
A deserved defeat for Korea Republic, who were second best in all aspects of the game. They failed to create any clear opportunities, their defending was sloppy and their passing game lacked fluency. The team may be disappointed, but now the players need to regroup and prepare for the next game.
Captain Andreas Granqvist marshalled the Swedish backline throughout the game, initiated countless attacks and took charge of scoring the penalty that gave his side victory.
Sweden had built up something of a reputation for starting World Cups slowly over the past 60 years. They had not recorded victory in their opening game since a 3-0 win over Mexico in 1958, the tournament at which they would ultimately finish runners-up.
What’s next Germany v Sweden, Group F, 23 June, Sochi Korea Republic v Mexico, Group F, 23 June, Rostov-on-Don