SOCHI, Russia – Unlike the other World Cup favorites that struggled through their opening matches, Belgium looked every part the title contender.
Having Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku capable of scoring the way they did against Panama helps.
“People know I am supposed to score goals,” Lukaku said. “The most important thing to me is to win matches.”
Lukaku scored twice in a six-minute span in the second half after Mertens’ perfectly struck volley gave Belgium the lead, and the Red Devils beat overmatched Panama 3-0 Monday.
Saddled with massive expectations and a lineup of talent the envy of other teams in the tournament, Belgium showed flashes of being a team worthy of title consideration.
A shaky first-half performance by Belgium was replaced by a confident, attacking group in the second that was finally able to find gaps in Panama’s defense and convert those chances into goals.
“In the World Cup you have to play 90 minutes. You have to be aware that in any game you go into, if you don’t score early on, you have to be prepared to work hard and go through periods in which you are tested,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said.
The two goals from Lukaku came shortly after Mertens scored from about 18 yards in the opening moments of the second half, finally relieving some pressure after Belgium was unable to break down Panama for the first 45 minutes.
Lukaku’s first goal came 20 minutes later, but the pass from Kevin De Bruyne made it possible. Rather than shooting through a crowd of Panama defenders, De Bruyne cut a pass with the outside of his right foot onto Lukaku’s head and into the net.
Lukaku added a second on a breakaway minutes later, chipping Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo as he left his net.
“For me it’s important to have the right line in the box,” Lukaku said. “Usually I’m in the right position at the right time.”
Belgium is now unbeaten in its last six World Cup openers, dating back to a 1986 loss to Mexico in the opener.
Panama was unable to duplicate what Senegal accomplished in 2002 as the last team to win in its World Cup debut. The Central Americans played their style – physical, aggressive, sometimes looking more like wrestling than soccer – and managed to hang with the Red Devils for more than an hour. But they never created threatening scoring chances – Panama scored only nine goals in 10 World Cup qualifying matches – and eventually Belgium finished its opportunities.
The emotion was heavy for the Panamanians who flocked to the Black Sea resort town to see the country play its first World Cup match. Fans cried at hearing their national anthem and the players on the field fought their own emotions while singing. Their voices rose with every Panama attack and the singing and dancing almost never stopped. Panama’s players stayed on the field to salute the fans several minutes after the match ended.
Luminaries like Panama President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez and baseball star Mariano Rivera were in attendance. They would have just preferred something a little less challenging than one of the pre-tournament favorites.
“It was very moving to be able to sing the national anthem and represent our country,” Panama captain Roman Torres said. “It was historic what we went through here today.”
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