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