Belgium opened their 2018 World Cup campaign with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Panama in Sochi on Monday afternoon.
Roberto Martinez’s side laboured a bit in the first half as they struggled to break down a determined Panamanian rearguard – indeed, it looked as though a change of personnel would be needed in the second half for there to be a breakthrough.
However, the Red Devils found a way through early in the second half, courtesy of a brilliant volley from Napoli’s Dries Mertens. From there, Belgium were decidedly more relaxed and two goals from Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku put the gloss on what was an accomplished display from one of the sides tipped to reach the latter stages of the competition.
But what did we learn from a match in which Belgium did what Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Germany could not, and get their World Cup campaign off to a winning start?
Belgium were clinical when it mattered most
Having the ability to call upon the likes of Romelu Lukaku is handy when a goal needs to be found from somewhere is always handy, and the striker made his mark on proceedings here with two well-taken goals to seal Belgium’s win.
Lukaku had struggled to get into the game before his first goal – as had Kevin De Bruyne before that terrific assist – but his very presence means that he is a constant danger to opposition defences.
Questions will have to be asked of the overall system utilised by Martinez here – and the real test of this side will come deeper into the competition – but indivudual stars like De Bruyne and Lukaku will, more often than not, have enough about them to do the necessary against teams of this calibre regardless of managerial instructions.
However, there’s no doubt that they must improve
Despite the routine nature of the win, Belgium really shouldn’t be getting carried away with the result as the ability of the opposition has to be taken into account. Panama fell in the second half, but the first half shouldn’t be forgotten so easily.
A fantastic goal from Dries Mertens got the ball rolling and the individual brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne (who wasn’t having a great match up until his wonderful assist, truth be told) and Romelu Lukaku put the final nails in the coffin. Those moments of isolated wizardry, however, are part of the problem.
Roberto Martinez is, probably, a step up from Marc Wilmots but that really isn’t saying much. One gets the sense that this Belgium side have not fully been tested – and until that happens, we are no closer to finding out just how formidable a prospect this team are under the former Everton manager.
Yannick Carrasco is not a wing-back
If there is one weak link in the Belgian lineup, it is the continued deployment of Yannick Carrasco at left wing-back. It’s not a position that he plays well in, nor is it one that he occupies with club side Atletico, and yet Martinez’s determination to cram as many star names into his team has led to this imbalance.
Carrasco is a fine attacker, but a wing-back he is not – his determination to bomb forward and leave acres of space when he failed to track back are evidence of that. Belgium could get away with it here because Michael Murillo didn’t punish him as much as other teams would have. However, the bigger teams – ones who will properly test this defence – will be nowhere near as forgiving.
If Martinez is fully wedded to the 3-5-2 formation, it’s a problem area he really needs to sort out.
Panama are determined but very limited
Panama held tough in the early stages of this match, but they rarely looked like being anything other than a frustration for Belgium throughout this tie.
Michael Murillo at right-back looked promising (though that could be down to Martinez’s choice down the left) and the midfield pairing of Anibal Godoy and Armando Cooper did a fine job of keeping Eden Hazard as best as they could, but they lacked the overall quality to make a serious impression in the game.
Belgium’s patience paid off and England are likely to find a similar route through even if, as was the case here, it takes a bit of time. Panama have captured hearts and minds in Russia this year, but they are unlikely to capture many points.
An England win against will make Group G a straightforward task
Belgium and England are expected to duke it out for top spot in the group, and this match at least showed that Panama will not be a threat to that aim – insofar as Gareth Southgate’s men will also be expecting to come through wminimalinal fuss when the sides meet next week.
Should England come through their clash against Tunisia in Volvograd with a win – a feat that that Belgium will be expected to accomplish too – it will come down to the two Europan sides to determine who tops Group G.