Belgium vs Panama: 5 things to look forward to

Roberto Martinez's Belgian time get an easy start against the World Cup debutants.


After a string of disappointing tournaments, Belgium gets another chance to do themselves justice in Russia. After sacking Marc Wilmots following the cataclysmic defeat to Wales at Euro 2016, this is their first tournament with former Everton and Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. 

He had them qualifying well, and they recorded big wins against inferior opposition, and bar a major upset that should continue here. 

Panama upset the odds to make it here, debuting in Russia alongside Iceland.

Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany have both suffered knocks for Belgium in their preparations for this tournament but should be fit enough to feature here, though, given the opposition and Kompany’s history of breaking down, Martinez might wait to use him. 

Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will definitely feature at the back, ahead of Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois. Offensively, other Premier League standouts Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne will almost certainly start, with Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco likely. 

Panama’s injury concern is midfielder Jose Luis Rodriguez, but he has since returned to training.

Here are five things to look forward to:

  1. 1 Panama, a team here on merit.

    There's every chance, given the firepower of their opponents, that Panama find themselves three or four goals behind early in the second half. 

    At which point, you might see tweets or articles moaning about what they offer to the tournament when other, bigger countries didn't qualify. It's easy to allow such nonsense to rile you up, but my suggestion is to revel in it. 

    Americans might even have the gall to question them. But the truth is Panama qualified ahead of the United States and held them to a draw at home. They'd do well to get a reminder if they managed to beat Trinidad and Tobago, ranked 91st in the FIFA rankings, that they would be here instead - and then ask themselves how on earth they can question another team's quality. 

  2. 2 Another game for the superstars


    It's been a mixed tournament so far for the biggest names. 

    On Friday night, Cristiano Ronaldo doubled his World Cup tally with an astonishing all-round performance resulting in a hat-trick against Spain. 

    Lionel Messi was triple-marked and left frustrated, missing a penalty in a damaging draw to Iceland. France's front three of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele failed to click but did enough. Mohamed Salah, disappointingly, just wasn't ready to feature against Uruguay, who had the huffing and puffing Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez kept at bay. 

    And so, with Belgium we come to the outstanding names of English football: De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku. There's currency in scoring at a World Cup, and one of the most fascinating aspects of a tournament is how the most established names live up to the hype. 

    They're all potential match winners. Will we be treated to their best?

  3. 3 Roman Torres, Panama's hero


    In the thousands and thousands of minutes played by the hundreds of countries hoping to qualify for Russia, you'd be hard-pressed to find a moment more memorable, more ecstatic than Roman Torres late winner, in the last match of qualifying, against Costa Rica. 

    The 6ft1" dreadlocked Seattle Sounders centre half cuts an unmissable presence on the pitch, and his burst forward in those dying moments demonstrated his by-the-scruff-of-the-neck qualities. 

    Against such quality opposition, he must show his qualities at the other end. He's struggled with injuries and might not be at his freshest but Panama will need him at his best and most commanding, organising the defence against an inevitable onslaught. 

  4. 4 A hint of Belgium's best?


    It's tempting to make conclusions early on, but such a small sample size can make fools of us all. After one game, you might say Russia look like world beaters, David de Gea is hopeless, and Ronaldo is a brilliant free-kick taker. 

    A good performance from Belgium - even a thrashing - will tell us little about how they'll do against a Germany or Brazil. But it will offer a hint. For years their fatal flaw has been an inability to mould a convincing collective unit that does justice to their talent. 

    It will be interesting to judge their shape and system. To see how De Bruyne's vision works with Carrasco's running, for example, and if the wavelength is there all-round. If it's all there, then maybe - maybe - they will play at their best against the toughest opposition.

  5. 5 Panama's veterans


    This really was the last chance for some members of Panama's squad. 

    37-year-old Blas Perez was controversially credited with their equaliser in the final game against Costa Rica, a rare ghost goal for the modern era. Now playing in Guatemala, he's not at the top of his game but still an important player for the national team. He may not start but he will have a role to play. 

    He's only third on Panama's most-capped list, behind goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and midfielder Gabriel Gomez, both of whom still play important roles and are there in the World Cup squad. 

    Forward Luis Tejada shouldn't be forgotten either. The 36-year-old forward is retiring after the World Cup.

    So many in this Panama team have given years of service. A World Cup debut, at long last, is a wonderful reward. 

    Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group H in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

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