16:00 BST, Monday 18th June, Fisht Olympic Stadium (Sochi, Russia), BBC One
Everyone seems to have an opinion on Belgium.
Depending on who you ask they’re either dark horses to go all the way or dead certs to flop. Nothing but a win will do against World Cup debutants Panama in Sochi, and Roberto Martinez will be desperate for a convincing fast start.
Panama, on the other hand, go into the finals pinching themselves that they’ve made it this far. Los Canaleros struggle to score goals, but will look to be very physical and make it difficult for Belgium’s array of superstars.
Panama did reach the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup last year, so their squad are at least comfortable with tournament football.
Last Time Out
Belgium 4-1 Costa Rica [International Friendly]
With Roberto Martinez starting his strongest XI, Belgium ran out comfortable winners against also World Cup-bound Costa Rica in Brussels.
The Red Devils were given a scare when former Fulham man Bryan Ruiz volleyed Los Ticos in front after 24 minutes, but recovered well to win comfortably in the end.
Dries Mertens tapped home a mis-hit Eden Hazard effort to equalise just seven minutes later, and it was Mertens’ cross that was turned in by Romelu Lukaku that saw Belgium go into the break leading 2-1.
It was a similarly one-sided second half, and Lukaku was at it again when he powered a header past Keylor Navas from substitute Nacer Chadli’s cross. Lukaku was next to turn provider, as he teed up Michy Batshuayi who rounded off the scoring for the rampant Red Devils.
Norway 1-0 Panama [International Friendly]
Panama have struggled for goals in their friendlies since sealing qualification, failing to score against Denmark, Switzerland, Northern Ireland and, most recently, Norway.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez will be really disappointed at the manner of the way his side conceded. The Panamanian defence were undone by a simple goal kick, with Bournemouth’s Josh King not quite believing his luck as he was able to poke the ball past the helpless Jaime Penedo.
The closest Panama came to equalising was when a Fidel Escobar free kick stung the palms of Sten Grytebust in the Norway goal.
In truth, though, it was Lars Lagerback’s side who should have extended their lead when Ola Kamara blazed Alexander Sorloth’s square ball over from just a yard out.
Of course Martinez would dearly love Vincent Kompany to be available, but the Manchester City captain is unlikely to make it for the opener against Panama, with the third group match against England a more realistic aim.
Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata will be the man to fill the void left by Kompany, and will slot in between the formidable Tottenham pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Eden Hazard had an injury scare against Costa Rica, but should be fine to start Belgium’s World Cup opener.
Hernan Dario Gomez has used a 5-4-1 in the past, but has stuck with a rigid 4-1-4-1 formation for most recent preparation matches. The emphasis has been on tightening up after a chastening 6-0 defeat to Switzerland in March.
Midfielders Gomez, Godoy and Cooper are all expected to muck in and help out the back four, leaving a thankless task to 37-year-old talismanic striker Blas Perez, who has scored an enormously impressive 43 goals for his country.
19-year-old left winger Jose Luis Rodriguez is one of the youngest players at the World Cup and despite not having made his senior debut for Gent yet, is likely to start in an attempt to bring some youthful exuberance and flair to an ageing Panama side.
Key Battle: Eden Hazard (Belgium) vs Fidel Escobar (Panama)
Panama will sit deep and look to stifle Belgium, so the attacking flair and imagination of Chelsea’s number ten will be vital in unlocking the door for the Red Devils.
Los Canaleros are a very physical side and Hazard can expect particularly rough treatment, but as he usually does in the Premier League, he will have to rise above it and keep taking players on and winning free kicks.
If Belgium can score reasonably early, their work will become a lot easier, Hazard is the man that can help the likes of De Bruyne, Mertens and Lukaku around him shine.
Not yet a regular at club level with New York Red Bulls, Escobar has been pivotal for his national team over the last couple of years. Now boasting 23 caps at the age of 23, Escobar is a rare Panamanian player that is truly comfortable on the ball.
Having a defender with good technique and composure can help to calm things down when Panama come under increasing pressure from the Belgians.
Any Panama success is likely to come through a clean sheet and Escobar will have to be at his imposing best.
Despite doubts about Roberto Martinez, Belgium are a much better side going forward than they were under his predecessor Marc Wilmots.
Whilst Panama only conceded one goal in recent outings against Northern Ireland and Norway, the 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Switzerland in March will still hurt them, and they will have to play out of their skins if they are to keep a potentially rampant Belgian attack at bay.
Both centre backs Roman Torres and Fidel Escobar ply their trade in MLS, so they are at least used to playing against a relatively high level of attacker, but this will be another step up altogether.
Torres, however, has been injured recently and may not be up to full fitness, hampering him in his attempts to quell Belgium’s firepower.
David vs Goliath
The group stage of this World Cup is likely to be characterised by underdog sides playing extremely defensively against better teams.
This could be an early indicator of how smaller sides will get on, and whether minnows stifling their more talented rivals could become a recurring theme throughout the tournament.
Belgium’s very attacking formation is likely to untested by Panama, and this should actually be the perfect kind of game for the way they play.
Prediction: Belgium 4-0 Panama
It’s hard to look past a Belgium victory, and a convincing one at that.
If they score in the first half, the floodgates could open, and the Red Devils could lay down a marker in their opening game.
Expect Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens to cause havoc in the Panama defence. Belgium will be judged on sterner tests, but this should be the perfect opening game for them to ease into the tournament.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group G in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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