Belgium 3-0 Panama: 5 things we learned as Lukaku races for Golden Boot

Belgium comfortably saw off a stubborn Panama side after a slow start to this Group G opener.

REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

In the end, Belgium’s quality told. Panama battled and, for a while, frustrated their opposition, but they could not hold out in the second half.

Dries Mertens’ volley, one of many aesthetic strikes in the tournament thus far, opened the scoring shortly after half time.

There was a brief period of respite for Panama until Romelu Lukaku struck twice to take the game beyond them: the first a header having been picked out superbly by Kevin De Bruyne, and the second a delicate chip over the onrushing goalkeeper.

The victory was enough to see Belgium go top of Group H by virtue of a better goal difference. England, of course, defeated Tunisia with a late Harry Kane goal, and the two favourites are now in position to qualify for the last-16.

Here are five things we learned from Belgium’s win over Panama.

  1. 1 Familiar problems for Belgium

    REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

    Though they eventually eased to victory, Belgium will not be without concerns in the aftermath of this win. The first half, in particular, was uninspiring and turgid, notable for Belgium's scarcity of ideas in the final third.

    It was all too familiar.

    Static, rigid buildup play was synonymous with the teams of Marc Wilmots, and it was present again in Sochi. Roberto Martinez will know that it must be addressed ahead of games against stronger sides.

    The goals, though they were impressive, came more from individual quality; there was a sense that the talented attacking players would need to produce something, that the system was not conducive to breaking down their stubborn opposition.

    De Bruyne appeared restricted alongside Axel Witsel in midfield, while Eden Hazard could not find the required space to make an impact. But the lack of fluidity will be a worry ahead of two more difficult group games.

  2. 2 Plucky Panama impress

    REUTERS/Max Rossi

    They tired in the second half and might have conceded more by the end, but this was an impressive World Cup debut from Panama.

    Belgium, who scored 43 goals in qualifying and represented a formidable opening game, were frustrated for far longer than many expected.

    Panama did not make it easy. They harried Belgium, made a number of robust challenges and the prevailing sentiment at full time, despite the defeat, was one of pride.

    The Panamanians in the stadium were vocal and made clear their admiration for the players.

    Many had expected a thrashing, but it was far from that. Panama, though they will likely finish bottom of a difficult group, will take encouragement from that.

    “I told the lads they had played well and no one could point the finger,” coach Hernán Darío Gómez said. And no one did.

  3. 3 De Bruyne dilemma

    REUTERS/Hannah McKay

    How can Belgium consistently get the best out of Kevin De Bruyne? That was a question many were asking after the victory over Panama.

    He provided the assist for Lukaku's first goal, a sublime cross with the outside of his right foot, but throughout the game he appeared restricted in a deeper midfield role alongside Witsel.

    The solution could be to change the system, to find a way to allow De Bruyne more freedom and to push into advanced areas.

    On Monday, he was tasked with picking out his attacking teammates from deeper areas and a number of them went astray: his pass completion rate was just 78.1%, compared with his average of 83.4% in the Premier League for Manchester City last season.

    De Bruyne is Belgium's most important player, and they will need his influence if they are to progress into the latter stages of the competition.

  4. 4 Panama lacking attacking firepower

    REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

    Panama were praised for their resilience and deservedly so, but they did little to trouble Belgium's back three. Blas Pérez, Panama's lone striker, was not given much to work with, and most of the openings were created by Belgium's lapses in concentration.

    England, who play Panama on Sunday, will not be overly concerned by Panama as an attacking force.

    The Central Americans scored just nine goals from ten games in qualifying; only Trinidad and Tobago, who finished bottom of the group, scored fewer.

    Unfortunately, they do not have an abundance of options in attacking areas.

  5. 5 Carrasco a potential weakness

    REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

    Yannick Carrasco is not a wing back, but that is where Martinez insists on playing him. The former Atletico Madrid man is a winger and an inherently attacking one, too. His defensive responsibilities, then, can often be neglected.

    Panama occasionally threatened down the righthand side, and Carrasco, perhaps inevitably, did not seem comfortable.

    There is a sense that he has been shoehorned into the role so that Martinez can continue to play his favoured system.

    Better teams will look to exploit that area of the pitch and it has been proven already that Belgium are not invulnerable when put under pressure.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 6 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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Callum Rice-Coates

Callum is a senior writer for These Football Times. He has also had work featured on Tifo Football, the Set Pieces, the Sportsman, Sports Illustrated and others.

Follow him on Twitter @Callumrc96