The good news for England is Panama are, to put it kindly, not very good, but then Gareth Southgate probably knew that already.
The better news here for the England manager is that Belgium were not much cop either and, at the very least, seem to be wrestling with a number of alarming kinks that no one can quite be sure if Roberto Martinez will be able to iron out. A quick glance at the scoreline would suggest this was a breeze for the Belgians and, certainly by the end, it had become an exercise in the routine with a couple of goals from Romelu Lukaku following a barnstormer of a strike from Dries Mertens at the start of the second half.
For a good while, though, Belgium’s golden generation looked very much like how England’s golden generation of the not so distant past invariably did at tournaments – considerably less than the sum of their parts and confounded by a system that neither maximised their strengths nor masked their weaknesses.
With talent heaped upon talent, there is always the hope that talent will eventually win out and there was a show-stopping moment from Mertens when he wholloped a divine volley into the top corner to put Belgium in front but, boy, how it was needed.
For the opening 45 minutes, it seemed fair to wonder if much had changed from Euro 2016 when Marc Wilmots’ tactics were torn apart and he was jettisoned, to be replaced by Martinez. Panama may have tried to kick Belgium, and Eden Hazard in particular, off the park but their opponent’s physicality was no excuse for Belgium’s shortcomings before they got their house in order against a team who were never going to be able to hold out.
Before he finally got the sort of delivery he craves to score twice, Lukaku must have felt he had been transported back to Old Trafford in December when Manchester United lost the derby 2-1. Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo pumped aimless long balls in the vague direction of Lukaku in that game and it was much the same here.
With few workable options in midfield, time and again Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld would resort to launching the ball forward to Lukaku in the hope it might stick and Hazard could play off but those balls invariably lacked any precision.
As such, Lukaku was relegated to the role of frustrated chaser, touching the ball only seven times in that opening period. Belgium were crying out for Yannick Carrasco or Thomas Meunier to cut inside from their wing back positions to assist Kevin De Bruyne and help create some numerical supremacy in the middle. Instead, they were rigid and it suited a severely limited Panama.
Martinez felt his team were too anxious to impress and that edginess certainly led to some errant passing but he also complained that the grass was too long and dry. “It was the first game, and we wanted to be perfect,” he said. “We need to grow and take the lessons into the next game.”
Hazard was the busiest of Belgium’s players before the interval and hit the side-netting after seizing on a dreadful back pass by Roman Torres. Carrasco had earlier shot straight at Jaime Penedo after a clever dummy by Hazard from Merten’s pass but it was a fleeting example of Belgium fluidity.
Panama were rough and ready, and had racked up five bookings in less than an hour, but there was no craft to add to their graft and they were largely witless going forward. The game was screaming out for some quality and Mertens obliged within two minutes of the restart. His cross had been only partially headed clear by Torres, leaving Fidel Escobar and Hazard to challenge for the ball. It popped up and Mertens had only one intention, cracking a superbly controlled volley across Penedo and into the far corner.
If anything in the second half gave Southgate encouragement when it comes to facing Belgium in their final Group G game in Kaliningrad on Thursday week, it was the moment in the 55th minute when Panama made a rare venture behind Belgium’s back line. One of the concerns for Belgium is the space their wing backs leave in behind and that Achilles heels was exposed when Michael Murillo raced in behind to latch on to Edgar Barcenas’ floated pass. Fortunately for Martinez, Thibaut Courtois was quick off his line to thwart Murillo.
That was at 1-0. A Panama goal may have thrown the cat among the pigeons. As it was, Belgium began to exert more control and eventually eased clear with another two goals. For the first, Hazard passed to De Bruyne, who cut inside his marker and then played a lovely cross with the outside of his right boot to Lukaku, who stooped to head home.
De Bruyne also instigated the third, winning possession and releasing the ball quickly to Witsel who, in turn, set Hazard scampering forward. Hazard surged forward and then slipped in Lukaku as Panama’s defence advanced, with the United striker dinking a lovely finish over Penedo. Now that is service he can do something tangible with.
Opta’s twopenn ‘orth
- 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).
- 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).
Look at the scoreline and you would think it was a comfortable victory but it wasn’t. Belgium toiled for much of the game but scored three tremendous goals. A lot to like about Panama, their dedication paramount.
90+4 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
Panama give their fantastic fans a tonic by trying to chip the keeper from 70m a split second after the referee had blown his whistle for a foul.
90+2 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
There will be four added minutes. Curious match – Panama have demonstrated vigour and heart, Belgium a real flair in each of their three goals but they came in an otherwise perplexingly stilted performance.
87 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
De Bruyne is given a yellow card for studding Cooper in the midriff. He won the dropping ball with a raised leg but carried on maliciously with his thrust.
85 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
Sharp intervention from Courtois to save at Diaz’s feet after he and Tejada got round the back but the sub was offside, not that the keeper knew when he shot out and dived headfirst at his feet.
84 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
Thorgen Hazard replaces Dries Mertens. And Nacer Chadli is stripped too and waiting to come on as Belgium kill time.
82 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
Belgium free-kick about 20m out, left of centre. Hazard takes it and thumps it straight into the wall.
79 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
Murillo slides in to make a crucial tackle on Hazard in the Panama box and they break quickly down the left. Davis whips in a dangerous cross that only needs a touch but the sub, Tejada, is an inch too short and the cross parts his hair.
76 min Belgium 3-0 Panama
De Bruyne wins the ball, plays it to Witsel who taps it on to Hazard> He hares off at a fir old lick, weaving his way through the heart of midfield whilst his pursuers chase his heels. Lukaku keeps pace with him, splits off to the left and is played in one-on-one with the keeper by his skipper’s cute reverse pass.
Goal!! Belgium 3-0 Panama
Lukaku ends a fine counter-attacking break by dinking the ball over the keeper as he raced out to try to thwart him single-handedly.
74 min Belgium 2-0 Panama
Double substitution: Tejada comes on for he veteran Perez. Dembele on for Belgium, replacing Carrasco.
71 min Belgium 2-0 Panama
Gabriel Torres takes the ball, 25m out, thinks Courtois is too far off his line and goes for an up and under chip that Courtois catches easily while back-pedalling.
Goal!! Belgium 2-0 Panama
Yes, it stands. Terrific cross from De Bruyne, bent from the left with the outside of his right boot towards the back post. Lukaku, 8m out, dives forward to bury it with a firm header. He was level with Escobar, not offside. Great, short passing between Hazard and De Bruyne to work the defenders out of position.
67 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Meunier drills a diagonal cross from the right towards Lukaku but Penedo slaps it off his head.
65 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Belgium free-kick 25m out, dead centre, awarded for Godot’s cynical trip of Hazard. Trip Hazard? Call AmbulancechasersRUs. De Bruyne takes it and scuds it straight at the wall’s shins. Was he bargaining that they would leap and he could slide it beneath them? That’s the most charitable explanation. Alternately, he’s having a shocking match.
63 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Double Panama substitution: off go both wide midfielders Barcenas and Rodriguez. On come Gabriel Torres and Ismael Diaz.
59 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Panama pull off a crisp attacking move with a succession of quick passes that end upwith Barcenas who stops and surprises Alderweireld then hooks a shot just wide from 20m.
57 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Vertonghen inserts several fleas in Carrasco’s ear and Belgium do defend the corner fairly competently though Torres gets a header in he can’t get it on target. Belgium need to wake up.
55 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Belgium have dropped off to sleep again and allow a ball to be played over the top, diagonally from Barcenas hit right to left. Dozy Carrasco let Murillo in behind him and the right-back took a cushioned touch to set up a shot from 8m and Courtois comes out, spread eagles himself and blocks the stabbed shot with his thighs. Corner.
53 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
De Bruyne takes and gets it over the rather puny wall but bends it round the left post. He hasn’t played very well at all. It’s been a 5/10 performance from a consistently 8/10 player.
51 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
That’s woken Belgium from their torpor and they finally inject some pace into their play. Murillo hacks down Carrasco from behind and is booked. Belgium free-kick, about 22m out and a couple of metres to the left of the D.
49 min Belgium 1-0 Panama
Brilliant finish from Mertens from 15m out to the right of the box. An arcing right wing cross aimed for Lukaku at the back post was headed out, back and across goal by Torres to Mertens who met it on the volley and looped it superbly over Penedo.
46 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
We begin with the same teams, the same formations and the same pedestrian pace. Mertens is whacked by Rodriguez. Free kick on the right, taken by De Bruyne and he hits the first defender.
And this is the result of that
Romelu Lukaku has touched the ball only seven times in the first half.
My colleague JJ Bull dissects Belgium’s failings
Awful from Belgium. Absolutely useless. Martinez is trying to play a Cruyff-ish 3-4-3 but none if it works. It’s a 5-2-3 and they have no passing options, giving possession away with dreadful long balls
— JJ Bull (@jj_bull) June 18, 2018
Instead, this is all they can do. Pass sideways. The two CMs are marked and so a CB pumps it long and gives away the ball. I might be totally wrong but shouldn’t the LWB be back in midfield strata to open up a pass? And RWB forward? White lines pass, red is someone marked pic.twitter.com/KcKowAX4lW
— JJ Bull (@jj_bull) June 18, 2018
Half time thoughts
Belgium look slow and muddled, too much caution and too much anxiety. Panama, of limited skill by comparison, are well-drilled, defending with bite and passion and trying to be direct whenever they get the opportunity. We’ve seen so many sluggish ‘elite’ teams in the tournament so far.
Belgium fanny about for a while then whack it long up the right for Meunier who has slipped behind Davis en route to the corner flag but the referee blows his whistle while his overhit cross is still airborne.
45+1 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Barcenas is rightly booked for chopping down Carrasco 10m inside the Panama half.
45 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Belgium have succumbed to ‘Arsenal disease’, endless over-elaboration and a failure to take responsibility. Hazard again bursts into the box from the left and once more lays it off instead of shooting. Time was tight as was space but he had to have a dig from there. Two minutes will be added.
43 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Perez makes a decent run between Boyata and Vertonghen to chase a long ball but Courtois gets there first.
40 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Now it’s a Belgium corner after Hazard’s wobbling right-foot shot is turned behind by Jaime Penedo. He wriggled ahead of the defenders in that familiar way then sped up and cut his laces across it to get the movement but Penedo was up to the task. From the corner Mertens, who had stepped back towards the 18-yard line to give himself some room for the rehearsed move, is fed by De Bruyne’s precision cross but slices his volley wide of the far post.
38 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Carrasco misjudges the flight of Davis’ long cross from the left and, having lost his bearings, knocks it out for an unnecessary corner. Belgium regroup from the self-inflicted wound and defend it well.
37 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Mark Lawrenson just tut-tutted the referee for the official’s temerity to penalise Lukaku for fouling Torres as they went up for a header. ‘No, no, no!’ he says.
35 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Belgium defend well and try to break rapidly. De Bruyne spots Lukaku’s sprint through the middle but overhits his pass from the right. Hazard, scurrying forward in support, had a heavy collision off the ball during the break that was unnoticed by the ref.
34 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Perez breaks down the left and rolls the ball further up the flank for Rodriguez who plays a give-and-go with Davis, skedaddles up the byline and whips in a cross that is scrambled behind for Panama’s first corner.
32 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Hazard tries to play in Meunier down the right with a chipped diagonal pass designed to land in the path of his clever run but it hits the grass and skips away from the right wing-back into touch for a goalkick.
30 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Belgium are over-passing, Panama defending resolutely, occasionally by the seat of their pants, but it’s effective.
28 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
De Bruyne takes the free-kick and blasts it straight into the wall, specifically Cooper’s face. He goes down and the ball flies out for a corner. Cooper is checked over for concussion and is allowed back on after Belgium waste the corner.
26 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Belgium keep rattling the lock but they’re using the wrong key so far. Now Hazard takes on a dribble down the left and is hacked down by Murillo as he began to accelerate away and cut in. Free-kick, parallel with the right-angle of the box.
24 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
De Bruyne takes a corner on the right, arcing it deep where Witsel wins the header but no one anticipates his lay-off and Panama clear. Escobar and Lukaku had a fearsomely illegal grapple before, during and after the corner that goes unpunished.
22 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Belgium take the corner shot, passing to the left-angle of the box where De Bruyne takes a touch then thrashes a right-foot shot high, wide and hideously over the bar.
20 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
De Bruyne skates in from the right, beating Davis and Escobar and threads a pass through the six-yard box, arrowing towards Lukaku until the very well-positioned Torres intercepts at full stretch, doing the splits, to toe it behind for a corner as Lukaku was cocking his right knee.
17 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Booking for Davis for a pretty tame foul on De Bruyne. Play was waved on and Belgium have a corner. De Bruyne takes it short while Panama are playing Rip van Winkle and Mertens exploits their drowsiness to thrash an early shot in from the right that billows into the side-netting.
15 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Long ball from Escobar up the right is well controlled by Murillo out by the right touchline, heading it up vertically like a performing seal then on to Barcenas who strides past Carrasco and into the box but having left the left wing-back trailing, he then is too hands-on with Vertonghen and is penalised.
14 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Meunier is booked for a foul when leaping into Rodriguez. Not much contact and even less intent.
12 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
What a chance for Hazard. It was a tight angle of about 150 degrees on the left when the captain Roman Torres made an almost catastrophically misjudged backpass. He hadn’t picked his head up to see Hazard stealing behind him and the Belgium skipper was on to the weak pass in an instant but he could only stab his shot into the side netting.
9 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
In comes the corner and Mertens drops to his knees when Escobar fends him off with a hand to the solar plexus that was delivered with no force. Mertens ran into it and demanded a penalty. The referee isn’t having it, neither is Mark Lawrenson who harrumphs like a scornful horse.
7 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Carrasco flashes right-foot shot from the left of the box after a cute dummy from Lukaku let the ball roll across the 18-yard line until it got to the marauding let wing-back. Penedo gets down to low to smother but from his clearance Belgium come straight back at pace and play in Mertens down the inside right channel and he swivels, cuts inside and fires a rising shot that Penedo claws over.
5 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Carrasco, who let Atletico in January for the Chinese Super League, and Vertonghen combine up the left and the former turns to roll it back to the Spurs captain who fires a long diagonal over the box and no one can reach it.
4 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
Boyata’s first touch is on Cooper’s ankle, rather than the ball, clattering into him wide on Panama’s right. Davis curls in the cross that is cleared and a hopeful lob back into the box is gathered by Courtois amid some frenzied jostling from Panama.
2 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
From Coutois’ long punt, Belgium probe up the left with Carrasco who laces the ball through for Lukaku but though he protests that he is due a corner, it seems he had the last touch when closed down by Escobar and Murillo.
1 min Belgium 0-0 Panama
The huddles are over and Panama kick off. Roman Torres may be the captain but Gabriel Gomez is the de facto leader and he gives the final gee ups. They pass it back to Torres who whacks it 70m and gives Perez a hare to chase but the ball skips off the turf and into Courtois’ grasp.
The Panama team have gone for the full Dallaglio, absolutely belting out the anthem, some of them on the verge of a patriotic rapture.
Out come the teams
Eden Hazard and Roman Torres lead them out for the national anthem. I wonder which member of England’s support staff is here today?
The Panamanian contrast
Centre-forward Blas Perez is 37 and has to run his socks off every time he plays while the left-sided midfielder, Jose Luis Rodriguez, who is 19, plays for Gent in the Jupiler League, and has been drafted in from the U21s, gallops for the sheer joy of it.
From Telegraph Sport’s tournament guide: The stadium’s roof was removed to meet Fifa regulations, and the sweeping stands on either side of the pitch are in contrast to the smaller structures behind each goal. It bears resemblance to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. It is 18 miles from the city centre, so fans will have to base themselves at one of the fan parks near the stadium. And only have the one pint, of course. Will host three group stage matches, one last-16 tie and a quarter-final.
One last time – those teams in black and white
Belgium Courtois; Alderweireld, Boyata, Vertonghen; Meunier, De Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco; Mertens, Eden Hazard; Lukaku.Substitutes Mignolet, Vermaelen, Kompany, Fellaini, Thorgan Hazard, Tielemans, Januzaj, Dembele, Batshuayi, Chadli, Dendoncker, Casteels.
Panama Penedo; Murillo, Roman Torres, Escobar, Davis; Barcenas, Cooper, Gomez, Godoy, Jose Luis Rodriguez; Perez. Substitutes Calderon, Cummings, Gabriel Torres, Diaz, Machado, Pimentel, Arroyo, Ovalle, Tejada, Avila, Baloy, Alex Rodriguez.
Referee Janny Sikazwe (Zambia)
Julio Dely Valdés, Panama’s greatest player, has message for the team
Desde Málaga, España, nuestra leyenda Julio César Dely Valdés está listo para apoyar a nuestra selección nacional esta noche ante Bélgica (#BELPAN). Julio estará con Panamá en los partidos ante #ENGPAN y #PANTUN. #TodosSomosPanamá #PanamáEnRusia pic.twitter.com/TcsUzDsaX2
— FEPAFUT (@fepafut) June 18, 2018
Ninety minutes’ ebb and flow can be a bit of a distraction for some. If you’d like to know the final score now, have a go on the Telegraph’s ingenious prediction brain:
Belgium have named their side
Vincent Kompany hasn’t made it so his former City team-mate, Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata, steps in.
Enter Panama and Belgium
And on the fifth day, let the waters bring forth Belgium and Panama, another iteration of a ‘golden generation’, following Portugal’s and England’s fool’s gold false idols, against a World Cup debutant. Iceland set the most harmonious tone for newbies with their deserved draw against Argentina on Saturday and though first World Cup matches for any nation over the past five tournaments are understandably bittersweet in the build-up – ecstatic to be there, fraught about doing themselves justice – many have prospered.
Four years ago Bosnia & Herzegovina were defeated 2-1 by Argentina but in 2010 Slovakia drew 1-1 with New Zealand and made it through the group at the expense of the world champions Italy. In Germany, Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Ukraine all lost while Trinidad & Tobago drew but Ghana and Ukraine qualified for the knockout phase and in 2002 Senegal memorably beat the holders, France, and only went down in the quarter-final by virtue of Turkey’s golden goal. Yes, China, Slovenia and Ecuador all lost their first games but Panama could look to Croatia and 1998 when they began with a victory over Jamaica and ultimately finished third.
Panama are here because of a very good home record in the fifth round of Concacaf qualifying and an opening away victory over Honduras which enabled the two sides ultimately to finish level on points and allow Panama to escape a play-off on goal difference. They are an old side, a hard side and play with genuinely intimidating muscular athleticism. Any thoughts that they may trial a new approach here have been thoroughly debunked by their veteran defensive midfielder Gabriel Gomez. “We are men, we are aggressive,” he said. “Football is played with aggression, with desire. We are a team that knows how to play and when we have to fight, we fight.”
For all that, they are pretty enlightened technically if not always tactically and can open up a defence with decent movement – at no great pace – and some inspired passing angles. We will discover pretty quickly if they will be prepared to commit runners to help out their lone forward or whether they will opt for an attritional scrap with nine men attempting to kettle Belgium when the opposition have the ball.
As for de Rode Duivels or les Diables Rouges (depending on your tribe), they have a mouthwatering bounty of skill and an abundance of expectation, too. Having recovered from defeat by Italy in the first match of Euro 2016, much the same players then shrivelled in the quarter-finals against Wales, wilting under their opponents’ hard-running pressure and falling into incoherence and irresponsibility. They won all four games en route to the World Cup semi-final in 2014 then shrank again in the crunch game, losing to Argentina 1-0 having spent 70 minutes doing nothing and the last 20 hoofing it up to Marouane Fellaini.
Now, as well as Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Thibaut Courtois et al, they also have Roberto Martínez who proved himself to be a fine attacking coach in the Championship and Premier League and a complete flake in organising his defence. They qualified at a canter, winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games and with their talent really should be favourites to top the group. We will soon discover whether their occasional infuriating impassiveness and Martínez’s historic blind spots can be conquered this time out.
- Breanna Stewart is MVP as she helps US women win World Cup championship
- U.S. women basketball team heavy favorite to win World Cup
- US women basketball team heavy favorite to win World Cup
- U.S. women beat Canada 2-0, win World Cup qualifying tournament
- SPORTS BRIEFS: Modric wins world player of year, ends Ronaldo-Messi duology
- Russia Trolls CIA Over World Cup: 'Congratulations Accepted'—Now Add Crimea to Our Map
- US women's soccer team secures spot in 2019 World Cup with rout of Jamaica
- Jamaica Becomes First Caribbean Nation To Qualify For FIFA Women’s World Cup
- Spurs' White named to World Cup team
- US headed to women's World Cup with win over Jamaica