World Cup Match Recap 15: Japan 2, Colombia 1 (June 19)

Yuya Osako’s header from close range on a corner by Keisuke Honda in the 73rd minute gave Japan a surprising 2-1 victory over 10-man and Group H favorite Colombia as the two sides opened play at the World Cup on Tuesday in Saransk.

The Samurai Blue played almost the entire match with a man advantage after Carlos Sanchez was sent off in the third minute for a deliberate handball in the penalty area on a shot by Shinji Kagawa. The play started with Colombia defender Davinson Sanchez failed to close down Osako as the two challenged for the ball.

Osako was able to fire off a shot David Ospina did well to save, but the rebound went right to Kagawa, whose shot likely would have found the back of the net had Carlos Sanchez not stuck out his right arm. Referee Damir Skomina showed no hesitation in flashing a red card, and Kagawa converted the ensuing penalty by going right down the middle as Ospina guessed incorrectly and was leaning right.

It was the second-fastest red card in World Cup history, behind only Uruguay’s Jose Alberto Batista against Scotland in 1986 per Opta statistics.

Los Cafeteros, though, pulled level through Juan Quintero in the 39th minute. After Radamel Falcao drew a foul on Makato Hasebe for a free kick, Quintero cheekily went under the wall from 20 yards on the right, and Japan keeper Elji Kawashima was too slow to react as he did not get his gloves on the ball until after it crossed the line just inside the right post.

Japan came out reinvigorated after the break and looked to make full use of its manpower advantage. Osako ripped a shot from 10 yards on the left that Ospina parried for a corner in the 54th minute, and Takasha Inui forced the Colombian keeper into a full stretch three minutes later to deny a shot angling for the right corner.

Colombia coach Jose Pekerman made the surprising move of introducting James Rodriguez, who was held out of the starting XI with a calf injury, on the hour. Japan, though, began to monopolize possession as it tried to hunt out a go-ahead goal. Honda entered the match for Kagawa in the 70th minute and immediately tested Ospina with a low shot.

Osaka set up a chance in the penalty area for defender Hiroki Sakai, whose shot for the left corner was deflected for a Japan corner kick. That’s when Honda went to the work, putting in a ball from the left that Osako rose highest for while surrounded by four Colombian defenders in the six-yard box and beat Ospina, who got caught in no man’s land and was out of position when he stepped forward, inside the right post.

The Cafteros then pressed for a late equalizer, with Rodriguez running onto a backheel from Lerma into the penalty area, but his shot from a sharp angle on the right was deflected over the bar by Osako in the 78th minute. That was the last quality opportunity Colombia would get in the match, with Rodriguez getting a yellow card late for a petulant foul.

Japan’s victory was the first by an Asian team at the World Cup in 18 matches against South American sides after six draws and 11 losses entering the contest. It was also the Samurai Blue’s first win at the World Cup since closing group play in South Africa in 2010 with a 3-1 victory over Denmark.

Japan is tied atop Group H with Senegal, which completed a chaotic opening set of matches with a 2-1 victory over Poland. The co-leaders will meet Sunday in Ekaterinburg, while Colombia and Poland will try to climb back into contention later that day in Kazan.

World Cup Group A — Russia (1-0-0) vs. Egypt (0-0-1) Match Preview

While much of the pre-match talk ahead of Tuesday’s Group A contest between Egypt and host Russia in St. Petersburg has been focused on whether Pharaohs striker Mohamed Salah will be available for this match, the Sbornaya can take a huge step towards reaching the knockout round with a victory in this contest.

After claiming the Liverpool forward would be available for Egypt’s opener against Uruguay, boss Hector Cuper kept the superstar on the bench as it became apparent the shoulder injury he suffered in the Champions League final against Real Madrid had not fully healed.

This time around, Cuper told reporters Monday that “Salah is fit” before adding the team will conduct one last fitness check before kickoff.

“He is an essential piece to our team,” the manager understated. “He is an important player to us. Nobody can deny that. I say it with all due respect to the players in the Egyptian squad… I think he’ll be able to play.”

The Pharaohs, who nearly scraped out a draw before conceding late in a 1-0 loss to Uruguay, need a win to have any realistic hope of advancing out of this group as Russia enter the contest atop Group A with a commanding goal difference after opening the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia.

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov does have to make one change to his starting XI that performed so well to open this tournament as attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev is unavailable after suffering a hamstring injury in the opener. Denis Cheryshev, who scored his first two international goals after entering as a substitute, likely will take his place in the first 11.


The Pharaohs came oh so close to escaping Ekaterinburg with a point, but it was not to be as central defender Ahmed Hegazy was beaten to a cross by Jose Maria Gimenez, whose bullet header in the 89th minute condemend Egypt to a 1-0 defeat.

Prior to the set piece, Egypt had done well to contain the potent Uruguay strike tandem of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, though it did take on some water late as Cavani had a volley turned away by Mohamed El-Shenawy before thundering one off the crossbar prior to La Celeste’s breakthrough.

Egypt’s offense failed to spark without Salah, as both Marwan Mahson and Mahmoud Trezeguet failed to generate any quality scoring chances. The Pharaohs finished with only three shots on target as they had barely more than 40 percent possession and failed to earn a corner kick.

Russia, on the other hand, had everything come together after a disastrous World Cup run-up as they took the sword to South Arabia. While Cheryshev had a brace on either side of halftime, Aleksander Golovin won Man of the Match honors with a goal and two assists as the Sbornaya ruthlessly exploited a shambolic Saudi Arabia defense that let the hosts rampage through the midfield.

Iury Gazinsky and Artem Dzyuba scored the other goals for Russia, with Dzyuba assisting on Cheryshev’s second marker as well. Russia put seven of its 14 shots on frame and made the most of its 40 percent possession in the contest.


While Cheryshev and Salah are the expected changes for the respective teams, Tarek Hamed could be a player to keep an eye on. The Pharaohs holding midfielder was forced off shortly after the start of the second half with a bruised back following a collision with Uruguay’s Giorgian De Arrasceta, but he has been cleared to play in this match.


Cuper’s three substitutes failed to make much of an impact on the game, though Sam Morsy’s extended minutes in place of Hamed were serviceable. Mahmoud Karaba had just 16 touches in his 27 minutes after replacing Mohsen, and Ramadan Sobhy’s late entry failed to give Egypt the possession in the midfield needed to see out the match to gain a point.

Cherchesov made like Rumplestilskin against Saudi Arabia, as Cheryshov delivered two goals and Dzyuba added a third with an assist after replacing Fedor Smolov for the final 20 minutes. Daler Kuziaev was largely anonymous in his half-hour after replacing Alexander Samedov on the right wing, but by that point, he was surplus to goods given Golovin’s imperious play in the middle and Cheryshev’s star turn on the left.


Egypt – Mohamed Salah (F)

The world waits and hopes with anticipation that Salah will be able to take to the pitch for his match, but in addition to the worry of how well he can absorb contact, it has to be asked what his match fitness levels are. The striker has not played in 23 days, and while he may be game to play the full 90 minutes, Cuper will have to watch carefully to see if he can sustain his pace after 60.

Russia – Aleksander Golovin (MF)

Golovin’s only misstep in the victory was picking up a needless yellow card two minutes from time. If Russia and Uruguay win their matches, it becomes moot as both will clinch spots in the knockout round and Cherchesov has the option to hold out Golovin in the finale between the teams. If the CSKA Moscow man could put forth another effort like he did Thursday, though, the Sbornaya will be in very good shape.


Per Ladbrokes, Russia is listed as 21-20 favorites, with Egypt getting 3-1 as underdogs. The odds of a draw are listed at 2-1. The oddsmakers are fairly confident Salah will play, evidenced by his 9-2 odds as the match’s first goal-scorer. That puts him third overall behind Smolov (16-5) and Dzyuba (4-1). Cheryshev’s odds on finding the back of the net for a second straight contest are longer at 15-2, while Golovin doing likewise are 8-1.


Given how awful Saudi Arabia played and how solidly Egypt played in defense before its late breakdown, it is hard to imagine Russia scoring another five goals. Yet the Sbornaya could see more possession in this game than they did versus Saudi Arabia since the Pharaohs like to hit on the counter.

But Salah will be the fulcrum of this match. How he takes his first everything: touch, shot, body contact, foul suffered, cutback, etc., will be scrutinized to the Nth degree. It would not be surprising to see Cuper hold him out until the final half-hour and then bring him on to try and steal either one or three points depending on how the match is progressing.

Egypt must get at least a point from this match, while Russia would be happy with one given Uruguay should take care of business versus Saudi Arabia while potentially making up the goal difference in the process. Look for the Sbornaya to try and overwhelm Egypt in the first half-hour before the match settles into a cagey affair that eventually ends with a 1-1 draw.


2018 World Cup Group H — Senegal vs Poland Match Preview

A pair of top strikers will try to put their respective sides on the path to the knockout round Tuesday when Robert Lewandowski leads Poland into their World Cup Group H opener against Sadio Mane and Liverpool.

Lewandowski was the driving force of a Poland side that stormed to qualifying by finishing atop Group E by five points over fellow World Cup participant Denmark. He scored 16 of the Bialo-Czerwoni’s 28 goals in the 10 qualifiers, and the Bayern Munich man became the country’s all-time leading scorer with 55 goals in 95 international appearances.

Mane, meanwhile, has led the Lions of Teranga back to the World Cup for the first time since their debut in 2002 when they stunned defending champion France in their first match and eventually reached the quarterfinals. The Liverpool striker scored twice in qualifying for Senegal but will look to to display the club form that led to 20 goals in all competitions and a spot in the Champions League final.


Lewandowski scored in all but one of Poland’s qualifiers, failing only in a 4-0 loss at Denmark. His 16 goals were eight more than the next-highest scorer, and Kamil Grosciki was the only other player on Poland with more than one goal as he netted three.

This is the Bialo-Czerwoni’s first World Cup appearance since 2006 when they failed to get out of group play in a quartet that included host Germany. It is their eighth appearance overall as they look to reach the knockout round for the first time since 1986. Poland’s high-water mark was a pair of third-place finishes in 1974 and 1982.

Senegal had a nervy start to qualifying in Africa, needing to record a 3-0 victory over Madagascar in the second leg of its playoff after a 2-2 draw. The final round was not without controversy as the Lions of Teranga had to replay their match at South Africa, which was originally a 2-1 loss, because referee Joseph Lamptey was adjudged for unlawfully influencing the match by the FIFA disciplinary committee.

They then defeated Bafana Bafana twice in a four-day span last November to finish five points clear atop a group that also included Burkina Faso and Cape Verde. Diafra Sakho and Cheikh N’Doye scored two goals apiece for Senegal during qualifying with Mane was one of six others with one goal.


Poland coach Adam Nawalka likely will use a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Lewandowski the lone forward up top. Wojciech Szczeny, coming off a successful season in helping Juventus win the scudetto in Serie A, is between the sticks, with newcomer Jan Bednarak and veteran Lukasz Piszczek form a potent tandem on the right side of the back four.

Despite an uneven season in which West Bromwich Albion was relegated from the English Premier League, Grzegorz Krychowiak anchors the central midfield and will try to link with Piotr Zielinski underneath Lewandowski. Grosicki provides pace on the left flank and had a solid season for Hull City in the Championship with nine goals.

Midfielder Jakub Blaszczyowski will notch his 100th cap with his next appearance for Poland, while Lewandowski is the only other player above 65.

Aliou Cisse, a member of the 2002 World Cup team, is expected to use a 4-1-4-1 formation in which Mane and Keita Balde will push forward wide in support of Sakho. Guinea-based keeper Khadim N’Diaye gets the nod between the sticks over Rennes No. 2 Aboudalye Diallo, and Idrissa Gueye will patrol the midfield in front of the back four and is part of an all-Premier League quintet of midfielders.

Gueye is Senegal’s most-capped player with 57 appearances, followed by Mane with 52 and Moussa Sow with 50.


Poland – Piotr Zielinski (MF) 

While Lewandowski is a known quantity, Zielinski could emerge as Poland’s secondary scorer. He had seven goals for Napoli this season and scored in a pair of friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Reportedly on the verge of signing a new deal with his Serie A side that includes a £65 million release, the 24-year-old could be primed for a breakout tournament.

Senegal – Sadio Mane (F)

The forgotten goal-scorer in Liverpool’s attack, Mane tends to pop up all over the pitch in attack at the club level. Whether that kind of unpredictability will serve Senegal well remains to be seen, but Mane’s pace on the right flank will likely give Poland fits.


With Zielinski expected to come off the mark with his impending re-signing at Napoli, Krychowiak may stick around in England as newly promoted Fulham is reportedly interested in his services. Juventus and Napoli reportedly made offers for Keita Balde over the past year, so there may be residual interest in the 23-year-old Monaco man.


Per Ladbrokes, Poland has been established as a 5-4 favorite, with Senegal getting 12-5 odds on taking all three points. The odds of a draw are listed at 2-1, creating a tight line across the board. As expected, Lewandowski is the clear-cut favorite to be the first goal-scorer, returning 14-5 odds, while Sakho and Mane both have 11-2 odds.


There has not been much talk about Poland as a potential darkhorse, which is somewhat surprising given its status as group winner following up its quarterfinal appearance in the 2016 European Championships. Lewandowski is one of the world’s best striker, and Szczeny is one of the more underrated keepers in Europe.

The Bialo-Czerwoni should contend for the top spot in Group H with Colombia, though Senegal definitely has the potential to play spoiler in this group as the African side is a cut above Japan.

Senegal’s return to the global stage after 16 years is somewhat overdue, and having Cisse guiding the squad takes some of the pressure off trying to match that 2002 showing by his side in Japan and South Korea.

The Lions of Tarenga have the talent to get through to the knockout round behind Mane and Sakho up front, but their hopes may hinge on Zielinski’s Napoli teammate and central defender Kalidou Koulibaly keeping Lewandowski in check in this match to give themselves a chance against Colombia.

This should be an entertaining match, and a split of the points via a 2-2 draw would not be a surprising scoreline.


Poland moves on to play Colombia in Kazan on SundWay, while Senegal will play Japan earlier that day in Ekaterinburg.


2018 World Cup Group H — Colombia vs Japan Match Preview

A potential darkhorse title candidate for the second consecutive World Cup, Colombia looks to start play on the right foot Tuesday when it faces Japan in the Group H opener for both sides in Saransk.

Colombia lived up to being a trendy pick in Brazil four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals after sweeping through group play and defeating continental rival Uruguay before falling to the host country in the round of eight in controversial fashion as a tying goal was disallowed late.

Los Cafeteros are again led by 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, who is aided up front by Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado as they look to make a deeper run than their all-time best from four years ago.

Not much is expected from Japan, which is making its sixth straight World Cup appearance after not making the tournament until its maiden showing in 1998. Akira Nishino took over the team in April after Vahid Halilodzic was fired, and the Blue Samurai had an unimpressive string of matches leading up to the World Cup before defeating Paraguay 4-2 in their send-off match last week.


Colombia started the grind of South American qualifying as the highest-ranked team in the FIFA rankings at No. 5 but got off to a slow start and claimed just four points from its first four matches. Like seemingly all of the usual soccer powers on the continent, the Cafeteros had a period of struggle before regrouping, though they did not secure their spot in the World Cup until their final match day with a 1-1 draw at Peru.

This is Colombia’s sixth overall World Cup appearance and its first back-to-back showing since making three straight from 1990-98. The only other time it reached the knockout round before 2014 came in 1990, when it lost to Cameroon in extra time in the round of 16.

Japan punched its ticket to Russia as the top finisher in Group B of Asian qualifying, doing so with a match to spare as its loss to Saudi Arabia on the final matchday allowed the Green Falcons to claim the other automatic spot. Genki Haraguchi scored a team-high four goals in the final round and Japan had 12 different goal-scorers in the 10 matches.

If the pattern of previous World Cup appearances holds, the Blue Samurai would be tipped to reach the knockout round in Russia after doing so as co-hosts in 2002 and again in 2010. In Brazil, they finished last in the group Colombia won, claiming their only point with a scoreless draw versus Greece.

Those two previous runs to the round of 16 mark Japan’s furthest entry in the World Cup.


Both squads are expected to use 4-2-3-1 formations, but it is possible Nishino may go to a five-man backline for Japan after experimenting with it in the run-up of friendlies.

Colombia is backstopped by Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina, who is also the team’s most capped player with 86 international appearances. On the back line, Spurs central defender Davinson Sanchez has been tipped for a big tournament and will team with Yerry Mina, who became the first Colombian player to see action for Barcelona. Veteran defensive midfielders Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar will provide support.

The offense will flow through James and Cuadardo, with the former scoring six goals in Brazil four years ago and the latter supplying pace down the right flank. They will both try to link up with Falcao, who has thrived with Monaco following failed loan stints with both Manchester United and  Chelsea, and is also the Cafeteros’ all-time leading scorer with 29 goals.

The strength of the Blue Samurai resides in the spine with Southampton’s Maya Yoshida in central defense and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa pulling the strings offensively in the midfield. Japan, though, took a huge injury hit when striker Shinji Okazaki suffered a torn calf injury in the win over Paraguay and could be sidelined the entire tournament. The Leicester City forward has 50 goals in international play, good for third all-time.

Nishino also brought along many veterans who could see playing time if things go sideways, including midfielder Keiuske Honda, who could make his third World Cup appearance, and Makato Hasebe, who has 110 caps and is one of three centurions on the team along with Okazaki and defender Yuto Nagatomo (105).


Colombia – James Rodriguez (MF)

More of an attacking midfielder with a forward’s skillset, Rodriguez scored one of the top goals of the 2014 World Cup with an audacious volley in the win over Uruguay in the round of 16 and was man of the match in three of Colombia’s first four matches. He totaled eight goals and 13 assists for Bayern Munich while out on loan from Real Madrid this season and had six in South American qualifying.

Japan – Takashi Inui (MF)

The newly minted Real Betis winger has speed to burn on the left flank, and there will be high entertainment watching him and Cuadardo burn up and down the sidelines. Prior to joining Betis earlier this month, Inui spent the past three seasons with Eibar and had 11 goals in 88 contests.


Colombia reserve forward Carlos Bacca is rumored to want to stay in Villarreal after being loaned out by AC Milan after scoring 15 goals in Spain this past season. Falcao is reportedly being chased by multiple teams, including Premier League side Everton.


Per Ladbrokes, Colombia is a heavy favorite at 7-10 odds, with Japan decided underdogs at 19-4. A draw returns 12-5 odds. For first goal-scorers, Falcao is the front-runner at 7-2, while the aforementioned Bacca is 9-2 and James is right behind the pair at 5-1. Yuya Osako is Japan’s top option at 7-1 odds.


While Colombia is a favorite to return to the knockout round, it is not a straightforward path to the top of Group H as Poland can also stake a claim as the best team of the four. Still, Los Cafeteros have the most starpower in the group, and this is a make-or-break tournament for their golden generation after they made a semifinal exit at the Copa America Centenario.

Rodriguez has been dealing with a lingering calf injury but is expected to be available for this game, and despite being Colombia’s all-time leading scorer, this will be Falcao’s first World Cup appearance after missing out in 2014 due to a torn ACL suffered six months before the tournament.

Japan’s players and coaches have said all the right things about not being discombobulated despite the late coaching change, but no one really seems to know how Nishino will set up his team until he hands in the lineup sheet. Yoshida may be the most important player for the Samurai Blue since he will be primarily tasked with defending Falcao.

Colombia pulled away in the match between the teams four years ago in Ciubaba. Cuardado and Okazaki traded first-half goals, with Cuardado converting from the spot on 17 minutes and Okazaki answering with a diving header just before halftime.

Jackson Martinez then scored the go-ahead goal in the 55th minute and added a second marker eight minutes from time before James completed the scoring one minute from time to complete Colombia’s romp through group play.

While the scoreline won’t be that lopsided this time around, look for Los Cafeteros to start things up with a convincing 2-0 victory.


World Cup Match Recap 14: England 2, Tunisia 1 (June 18)

Harry Kane’s second goal of the match, coming in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, allowed England to escape with a 2-1 victory over Tunisia in its Group G opener in Volgograd on Monday.

After winning a corner, Kieran Trippier whipped in an outswinger from the right that Harry Maguire nodded to the back post, where an unmarked Kane coolly completed his brace with a header from inside the six-yard box. It prompted a wild celebration and pile-on in the corner as this young Three Lions side left it late after spurning multiple scoring opportunities throughout the contest.

Kane’s other goal came in the 11th minute, stabbing a rebound past Mouez Haseen, who made a spectacular diving save to deny John Stones on a powerful header off a corner by Ashley Young from the left. The ball spilled right to Kane, and the Tottenham striker and England talisman made no mistake by slotting it opposite the prone Hassen next to the right post.

The goal came as part of an opening 20-minute sequence in which the Three Lions tried to run Tunisia off the pitch, and the Eagles of Carthage were lucky to be down only one goal as England had six shots on frame in that stretch. Hassen did well to stop a shot by Jesse Lingard from close range and turned aside a shot by Maguire on a corner before Raheem Sterling scuffed a shot wide of the right post from the six-yard box.

In that span, Tunisia was forced into using backup keeper Farouk Ben Mustpaha on 15 minutes. Hassen appeared to hurt his shoulder in the opening minutes and then aggravated the injury making the save on Stones’ header. He returned to the bench in the second half with his left arm in a sling.

Lingard missed a chance to double England’s lead on 24 minutes, putting a right-footed side volley wide of the left post with all sorts of time. Maguire had a chance when he met Trippier’s cross on a free kick, but Ben Mustapha was up to the task with a diving save.

It would not be an England World Cup match without some consternation, however, and it arrived in the 33rd minute in the form of a penalty awarded to Tunisia after a moment of madness by Kyle Walker. Referee Wilmar Roldan pointed to the spot after the Spurs defender lifted his arm as a Tunisian cross sailed harmlessly through the England penalty area, connecting with Ben Youssef Fakhreddine in the face.

Ferjane Sassi took the penalty for the Eagles, and while England keeper Jordan Pickford guessed correctly and dove to his right, Sassi’s effort had too much pace as it fizzed inside the left post to make it 1-1. Stones had an opportunity to quickly restore England’s lead, but he made a hash of things at the top of the six-yard box and misfired.

Lingard had another chance right before halftime after Maguire got to a Trippier corner, but his shot was deflected over the bar. Tunisia did better in the second half to defend, with most of England’s scoring chances coming on corner kicks and other set pieces.

Manager Gareth Southgate introduced Marcus Rashford for Sterling in the 68th minute, and the Manchester United starlet instantly made a nuisance of himself with his pace on the right. Rashford, though, also was profligate with a scoring chance minutes before Kane’s goal, trying to create a scoring chance for his club teammate Lingard with a dummy rather than shooting from close range.

Turns out it was just ratcheting up the drama for Kane to be the hero as he now has 15 goals in 25 international matches.

Sasse’s penalty was the only shot on target for Tunisia, which was outshot 19-6 as England put seven of its attempts on target.

It was the first win to open group play for England since 2006 and just its second win in the last nine World Cup matches overall (2-4-3). It was also the second time in as many matches the Three Lions defeated Tunisia in the World Cup, with Southgate the starting center back in a 2-0 victory in France in 1998.

The Three Lions are second in Group G behind Belgium on goal difference after the favorites rolled to a 3-0 victory over Panama in its opener. The Eagles of Carthage are third, ahead of the Canaleros on goal difference.

Tunisia’s task to regroup to remain in the hunt to advance to the knockout round will be a difficult one as it faces Belgium on Saturday in Moscow, while England will look to take  a huge step towards qualifying the following day in Nizhny Novogorod versus first-time World Cup entrant Panama.

World Cup Match 13: Belgium 3, Panama 0 (June 18)

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.


World Cup Match 12: Sweden 1, South Korea 0 (June 18)

For the second time in the first set of matches at the World Cup, the Video Assistant Referee played a pivotal role as a penalty by Andreas Granqvist in the 65th minute after consultation proved decisive as Sweden edged South Korea 1-0 in Nizhy Novogorod to claim a share of the lead in Group F.

The VAR system has caused plenty of controversy for penalty calls after the fact and some not reviewed in the first five days of the World Cup. Referee Joel Aguilar was alerted to review a play in which Kim Min-woo scythed Viktor Claesson as he chased a ball to the right of goal, enraging the Swedish bench as they called for the play to be given a second look.

After watching the replay, Aguilar pointed to the spot, where Granqvist the center back looked as calm as a striker taking the penalty as he sent Cho Hyun-woo in the wrong direction and slotted it into the right corner.

The win gives Sweden a share of the group lead with Mexico, with reigning champion Germany tied with South Korea for third and needing a victory over the Blagult in the next match to keep control of its destiny in its final group finale.

Sweden also had a penalty shout late in the first half turned down when Ki Sung-yueng made a challenge on Ola Toivonen, but VAR felt Ki got enough of the ball not to ask Aguilar to take a second glance.

The European side had all the better chances as South Korea failed to put any of its five shots on frame. Cho made a fantastic save to keep the game scoreless in the 21st minute, ranging to his left to get his leg to a point-blank shot by Marcus Berg. Eight minutes later, it was Taeguk defender Kim Young-gwon coming to Cho’s rescue as he made a last-gasp slide to deflect Berg’s shot after the ball pinballed in the box following a Sweden corner.

Son Heung-Min tried to find space to be a threat for South Korea, but Granqvist led a well-marshaled backline against the Tottenham Hotspur striker, whose penalty appeal on a challenge by Ludwig Augustinssson shortly before halftime went unanswered.

Though not challenging Blagult keeper Robin Olsen, South Korea did fashion some chances in the final 45 minutes. Koo Ja-cheol sent a header wide of target shortly after the interval. In stoppage time, the Taeguk had their best chance, but Hwang Hee-chan’s unmarked header from 10 yards on a cross by Lee Jae-sung went begging wide of the left post.

South Korea coach Shin Tae-young was forced into one substitution early in the contest as Park Joo-ho left in the 28th minute with what appeared to be a severe hamstring injury. Kim Min-woo played the final 62 minutes in his place.

Sweden moves on to play four-time champion Germany on Saturday in Sochi while South Korea will try to regroup versus Mexico earlier that day in Rostov-on-Don