Belgium eased into World Cup with an opening 3-0 victory in their Group G match against Panama, making their first ever appearance at the tournament proper.
The Red Devils started brightly and appeared able to open up their opponents at will, with Yannick Carrasco side-footing at goal in space on the inside left. A minute later, Carrasco supplied Dries Mertens to shoot over, forcing a smart save from Jaime Penedo, who tipped over.
Roman Torres, Panama’s hero in qualifying, inexplicably teed up Eden Hazard with a woeful backpass, but the playmaker forced a shot against the side netting from a tight angle. Panama’s first World Cup looked like an ordeal to endure, but they swiftly settled into the first half.
Belgium, perhaps at the top of the second tier of favourites for the competition, became increasingly slack on the ball, with wayward passes allowing Panama to race forward towards the box on the counter. Despite Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen missing through injury, they were untroubled by the Panamanians.
Romelu Lukaku struggled without service, and his best chance of the hallf came when Penedo ran out to block a through ball before he could get a first touch to shoot on goal. The defensive nature of Belgium, even against such limited opponents, was holding them back.
In the second half, the deadlock was promptly broken. After a brief moment of head tennis from a cross aimed at Lukaku, the ball dropped to Mertens just inside the box. From an angle, he lashed a volley up and over Penedo, who barely had time to react before the ball was in the net.
Minutes later, Carrasco was at fault, betraying how unsuited he is to playing left-back, when he allowed Michael Murillo space in behind him, forcing Thibaut Courtois to race out to block his shot. While Belgium continued to see most of the ball, Panama kept their discipline and made life tough for Lukaku, keeping him cut off from both De Bruyne and Hazard.
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Belgium’s record goalscorer, Lukaku, finally made it two when he reacted smartly to a superb, flicked De Bruyne cross with a diving header past Penedo with 20 minutes of the game left to play, a rare moment of quality in the game. Lukaku had a second when he latched onto a Hazard through ball and lifted a shot over Penedo, making victory certain.
Belgium are now undefeated in their last 10 World Cup qualification group games, and will expect to collect another victory against Tunisia before the final match-up against England next Thursday. That match should decide who tops the group ahead of the knockout stages, though Belgium have become favourites with an impressive second half showing.
BELGIUM 3-0 PANAMA OPTA STATS
Belgium are now unbeaten in their last 10 World Cup group games (W5 D5 L0), winning each of their last five.
Each of the last 11 goals that Belgium have scored in World Cup matches have come after half-time.
Panama were given five yellow cards in this match – the last time that a team were given more in a single World Cup game was in the 2010 final (Netherlands – seven).
Overall, there were eight yellow cards in this match between Belgium and Panama – the most of any game at the 2018 World Cup so far and also more than in any single game at the 2014 tournament.
Belgium have won all 13 international matches that Dries Mertens has scored in.
Dries Mertens became the first Belgian player to score in two successive World Cup tournaments since Marc Wilmots (1998 and 2002).
It took 49 minutes and 10 seconds for Belgian playmaker Kevin De Bruyne to make his first successful pass in the match to teammate and striker Romelu Lukaku. His second pass (68:11) assisted a goal for Lukaku.
Romelu Lukaku has been directly involved in 13 of Belgium’s last 19 goals (11 goals, two assists).
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).
Eden Hazard has been directly involved in 16 goals in his last 15 appearances for Belgium (eight goals, eight assists).