Romelu Lukaku’s second-half brace after a wonder strike by Dries Mertens shortly after the interval gave Belgium a glossy 3-0 victory over World Cup debutant Panama in the opening match of Group G in Sochi.
The Red Devils dominated the proceedings throughout the contest and turned on the style in the final 45 minutes as all three goals were well-taken. The gulf in class between the sides, with Belgium featuring players from the best sides in Europe against a Panama side where football is still the second-most popular sport to baseball was evident early and remained that way even while it took more than a half for Roberto Martinez’s side to break down the Canaleros.
That is not to slight Panama, which gave everything it could in its first World Cup match. The country’s president was among 4,000 people of a population of just under four million who made the trek to Russia, and they made a vibrant scene in Sochi.
They were nearly rewarded right before the final whistle, when defender Fidel Escobar tried to loop a shot from his own half over Thibaut Courtois as the Belgian keeper was off his line, but the Chelsea shot-stopper backpedaled and punched it over the bar to preserve his clean sheet.
Belgium never seemed to get out of third gear in the first half yet still fashioned plenty of scoring chances. Eden Hazard pounced on a back pass without pace before the quarter-hour but fired his shot into the left side netting. Lukaku had a sure goal snuffed on a deflection by Roman Torres, who got a toe to a cross whipped in from the right by Mertens in the 20th minute.
Panama’s best option defensively was often physical play, and the Canaleros accumulated five yellow cards over the course of the contest.
The Canaleros continued to soak up pressure as the second half began, and it finally became too much courtesy of a moment of magic by Mertens two minutes after the restart. The Napoli man gave his full attention to the ball Hazard headed into the air and from just inside the penalty area on the right side, uncorked a looping right-footed shot Panama keeper Jaime Penedo had no chance of stopping as it sailed into the net and hit the side netting on the left.
Unshackled from the pressure of getting a result, Roberto Martinez’s men finally engaged the gears that have many pegging them as World Cup title darkhorses. Lukaku doubled the advantage in the 69th minute with a well-placed diving header from six yards inside the right post following an exquisite slicing right-footed pass from Kevin De Bruyne as the Manchester rivals combined on the marker.
Six minutes later it was Hazard’s turn to be playmaker, storming down the middle of the pitch on a counter before sending Lukaku through on the left. The Manchester United forward patiently waited for Penedo to commit before chipping a left-footed shot over him from 12 yards.
About the only downside for Belgium was accruing three yellow cards of its own as Thomas Meunier, Jan Vertonghen and De Bruyne all went into Janny Sikwaze’s book. The Red Devils finished with 15 shots and put as many on target (6) as Panama attempted overall.
Belgium’s second group match will be against Tunisia on Saturday in Moscow, while Panama will face England the following day in Nizhny Novogorod.