Oozing with talent as one of the World Cup favorites, Belgium looks to live up to expectations Monday when it faces debutant Panama in the Group G opener for both in Sochi.
In the prime of their golden generation, big things are expected of the Red Devils in Russia. They reached the quarterfinals in both the World Cup four years ago and the most recent World Cup championships, though the latter finish was disappointing enough to sack Marc Wilmots and replace him with Roberto Martinez.
Belgium was the first country to qualify for the World Cup, doing so with two matches to spare in group play, as a side led by English Premier League stars Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are tipped for big things in a group in which it is the clear-cut favorite.
Panama, on the other hand, is making its first World Cup appearance after claiming the third and final spot in the CONCACAF region. That made up for the stinging disappointment from four years ago, when the Canaleros were on the verge of finishing fourth and facing New Zealand in a playoff before conceding twice in second-half stoppage time to lose 3-2 at home to the U.S., which had nothing to play for in that contest.
A nation of less than four million people is roughly the size of South Carolina, Panama’s qualification for the World Cup is also the result of a golden generation of players who blossomed under Hernan Dario Gomez, who is taking his second country to the World Cup after leading Ecuador to its first appearance in 2002.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Belgium made quick work of qualifying in Group I in Europe, winning nine of its 10 matches while outscoring opponents 43-6. It was admittedly a weak group for the Red Devils to boss, with Greece finishing a distant runner-up nine points back and also featuring newcomers Gibraltar in its first qualifying campaign of any sort.
They have gotten out of group play in six of their last seven World Cup appearances, failing only in 1998 when they played three draws. In Brazil four years ago, Belgium swept South Korea, Russia and Algeria in group play before defeating the U.S. in extra time in the round of 16 and losing to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
It was the second time Belgium progressed to the quarterfinals, with its best showing coming with a fourth-place finish in Mexico in 1986.
Panama won only three matches in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying but also lost only three matches. The Canaleros got needed results on the final matchday when it rallied to defeat Costa Rica while the U.S. was unable to get a needed point to qualify as it lost at Trinidad & Tobago. Panama scored just nine goals in its 10 matches but conceded only 10.
Belgium is stacked with star power at every position, but talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany will miss at least the first two matches with a groin injury suffered in the run-up. His replacement, Dedryck Boyata, will be flanked by a pair of Tottenham Hotspur defenders in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as they serve keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are arguably two of the best players in the world, with the former a one-time EPL player of the year for Chelsea and the latter a runner-up for the award this season playing for Manchester City. They are joined by Axel Witsel, who will be a defensive midfielder in this 3-4-2-1 set-up.
Dries Mertens will join Hazard in a more advanced role behind Lukaku, who finished his first season at Manchester United with 27 goals in 51 matches in all competitions and has tallied 36 goals in 69 international appearances. Vertonghen is the lone centurion on the squad with 102 caps, while Witsel has 90 and Hazard 86.
Panama will utilize a 4-1-4-1 formation, with three members of its backline playing for teams in Major League Soccer in the U.S. Roman Torres and Fidel Escobar will be the central defense pairing. Gabriel Gomez, the Canaleros’ most capped player with 144 appearances, will provide support as a defensive midfielder and may occasionally provide a fifth man in the back, but look for Panama to also be cautious defensively.
While Gomez likes to use a high press, Panama was overwhelmed 6-0 in a recent friendly by Switzerland, which utilized one-touch passing to pull the defense apart. Given how fast De Bruyne and Hazard can move the ball through the midfield, look to see less of the high press and more sitting deep.
Up front, Blas Perez is a physical player who could give young Boyata issues. He has 43 goals in 118 appearances and is tied with teammate Luis Tejada for the most goals in team history. The Canaleros have six players with more than 100 caps, and a seventh, Armando Cooper, could join them if he appears in two matches.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne (MF)
Though not the proficient goal-scorer Mohamed Salah was for Liverpool, De Bruyne showed an unrivaled all-around game in helping Manchester City become the first 100-point team in English football history this season. He finished with 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions for the Premier League champions and has 14 goals in 62 international appearances.
Panama – Jose Luis Rodriguez (MF)
Just 19 years old, Rodriguez is a curious late call-up by Gomez considering he had not received any playing time with Belgium’s senior Gent side in the Juliper League. He made his international debut in May against Northern Ireland and will likely spend most of this match chasing long balls down the left flank as a relief valve to counter Belgium’s pressure.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Alderweireld is supposedly on the short list of Jose Mourinho’s wants at wide back for Manchester United, with a reported transfer fee of £75 million doing little to rebuff him. His club and compatriot on the backline, Vertonghen has been linked with a move to Lazio, with the Italian side eager for his services.
Per Ladbrokes, Belgium are heavy, heavy 1-6 favorites, with Panama getting long 16-1 odds to pull off the shock of the first matches of the World Cup. The odds of a draw are also decidedly long at 11-2. For the first goal-scorer of the match, Lukaku is 12-5 and Hazard is 7-2, with Michy Batshuayi surprisingly in the middle of the pair at 3-1.
Ten Belgian players are listed before Panama’s Tejada is listed at 10-1, with Perez right behind at 11-1.
It’s time for the rubber to meet the road for Belgium, which has embraced the expectations that come with this very talented squad. The Red Devils looked impressive in their last two World Cup tune-ups, dismantling Egypt 3-0 and Costa Rica 4-1 after playing Portugal to a scoreless draw.
They will have to play a patient game, though, given what Panama learned about its limitations in that loss to Switzerland. Gomez knows his team will struggle offensively; the Canaleros scored just one goal in five friendlies in 2018, and that came against Trinidad & Tobago, which finished last in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
One thing to keep an eye on here is the weather conditions. Panama is used to playing in humid conditions, and that was the case in the last match played in Sochi. Still, that will not be enough to save the Canaleros as Belgium should win comfortably by a 3-0 count to get things going in Group G.
Belgium will face Tunisia in Moscow on Saturday, while Panama will have an extra day to recover before facing England in Nizhny Novogorod.