Belgium finally break Panama down as De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku deliver
SOCHI, Russia -- Belgium defeated Panama 3-0 in the World Cup opener for both sides in Group G. Here are three thoughts on the Red Devils' victory:
1. Belgium made to work but get the job done
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez had warned that this was a match that "we can't expect to win quickly," and his words proved prophetic. In terms of possession, Belgium had its way with Panama and had little difficulty forcing turnovers in the attacking half. But in the first half, a combination of sharp goalkeeping from Jaime Penedo, wayward finishing and last-ditch defending kept the Belgians off the scoreboard.
It began when Penedo pawed away a Dries Mertens shot in the seventh minute. Eden Hazard picked off a poor back-pass from Roman Torres five minutes later, only to shoot into the side netting. Kevin De Bruyne picked the pocket of Fidel Escobar and appeared to have Romelu Lukaku picked out for a tap-in, but Torres slid in sharply with a vital deflection.
Penedo then delivered his best save of the half in the 38th minute when he parried away a fierce drive from Hazard following a mazy run into the box.
Of course, taking a while to score was a habit of Belgium during the 2014 World Cup, when it failed to find the net before the 70th minute in any of its matches. It didn't take nearly that long this time, though it did take something special. Just two minutes into the second half, a headed clearance from Torres was kept alive by Hazard, of all people, allowing Mertens to volley home an arcing shot.
The expectation was that Belgium would cruise from there, given the grip that it had had on the game throughout, but Panama nearly grabbed an equalizer in the 55th minute when Edgar Barcenas' lofted ball found Michael Murillo alone on goal, forcing Thibaut Courtois to come up with a point-blank save. Torres got on the end of the ensuing corner but his header went wide. That proved to be as close as Panama got to making a game of it.
Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez brought on Gabriel Torres and Ismael Diaz in a bid to spark the Canaleros' attack, but Belgium not only remained in control, it soon added a second in the 69th minute. De Bruyne collected a pass from Hazard near the top of the box and delivered a dead-eye pass with the outside of his right foot that Lukaku headed home.
Any hint of a Panamanian fightback was dashed six minutes later when Hazard's pass found Lukaku in the clear, and Lukaku lifted his shot over the advancing Penedo to make the score 3-0.
Clearly there will be tougher opponents ahead for Belgium, most notably England in the group finale in Kaliningrad on June 28, but for this match at least Martinez & Co. took care of the task in front of them and got the three points everyone was expecting.
2. Panama valiant but flaws exposed
Panama has forged a reputation in CONCACAF for being defensively solid and opportunistic in attack. That was the case in this match, and for a half their rugged defending was enough to throw Belgium off its stride a bit. But there were warning signs as well. Panama got caught trying to dribble its way out of trouble in its own half far too often, resulting in some transition opportunities that went unpunished.
Panama also struggled to string together passes for any appreciable stretch, with Belgium effectively shunting the Canaleros' attack into pockets from which it couldn't escape. Upping the tempo and pace of the passing did help on occasion; one sequence of sharp passes toward the end of the first half allowed Armando Cooper to get a look at goal, only to screw his shot well over the bar. Panama also had more success when Barcenas tucked inside and got on the ball, so it was curious to see him as one of the players brought off midway through the second half.
Ultimately, this was always a very limited Panama side which has done well just to make it this far. On the day the Canaleros didn't embarrass themselves but were simply no match for a Belgian team with a sizable edge in talent.
3. It took a while, but Belgium's stars delivered
When you have a roster as star-studded as Belgium's, it's tempting to think that against an overmatched opponent everything should be easy. The scoreless first half was testament to the fact that it wasn't, but credit Belgium's stars -- namely Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard -- for altering the match and making the plays that turned a tense game into something of a runaway by game's end.
All three showed variety in their play. Lukaku's physical gifts are obvious as he simply overpowered Erick Davis to score his first goal, then showed a deft touch to notch his second. De Bruyne stepped up from central midfield position to win balls effectively and there was no doubting the quality of his delivery on Lukaku's first strike. Hazard was a menace throughout much of the match and his assist for Lukaku's second was perfectly timed. Hazard even showed some grit to help keep the play alive for Mertens to score the critical first goal.
Mertens is no slouch himself, as his exploits at club level with Napoli have shown. He also has a history now of popping up in World Cup openers: Four years ago, he scored the winner in a 2-1 triumph over Algeria.
Of course, the curse of being such gifted players is raised expectations that more game-breaking plays will be made, and more often. But the fact that all four players are off to a good start bodes well.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.