13:00 BST, Saturday 23rd June, Spartak Stadium (Moscow, Russia), BBC
Belgium laid down a marker for their World Cup credentials with a promising 3-0 win over debutants Panama in their Group G opener, but they face a much tougher test in Tunisia.
The African nation were unfortunate to lose to England in their first game, frustrating the Three Lions for much of the second half and they’ll be hoping to do the same against Belgium in search of their first point of the tournament.
However, spirits in the Belgian camp will be high after such a dominant victory and they’ll know that another win will all but secure their spot in the last-16, with England and Panama to play on Sunday.
Last Time Out
Belgium 3-0 Panama
The Red Devils ultimately proved an unfair match for the World Cup debutants, despite the Panamanians holding Belgium for the first half. This was down to Belgium’s shortcomings as opposed to Panama’s strength at the back, however.
Romelu Lukaku was the Man of the Match with two goals, taking his tally to 38 goals for the country.
The first of which was a powerful header from a delightful Kevin De Bruyne pass with the outside of his boot, only the Manchester City playmaker’s second successful pass into Lukaku. The second, Lukaku chipped over Jaime Penedo from Eden Hazard’s through pass.
Read more on Belgium’s convincing win HERE.
Prior to this, Dries Mertens set the Red Devils on the road to victory with a stunning volley two minutes into the second period, relieving Belgium after a frustrating first half.
The scoreline could have been greater and Belgium weren’t truly tested, but they did what was required of them and looked convincing in doing so.
Tunisia 1-2 England
Tunisia were left feeling disappointed at the final whistle after England captain Harry Kane headed a 91st minute winner beyond substitute ‘keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha at his near post.
Kane managed to ghost past his Tunisian markers and find space to convert Harry Maguire’s flick on, with referee Wilmar Rolden perhaps watching for corner skirmishes more closely after missing the first two occasions Kane was wrestled to the ground.
Tunisia were lucky to not lose by more than a goal as the Three Lions – particularly Jesse Lingard – were wasteful in front of goal, and it took Kane to rescue them late on.
Read more on Tunisia’s late defat to England HERE.
England were almost punished for their profligacy after Ferjani Sassi equalised from the spot due to a foul from Kyle Walker on Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, and despite sturdy Tunisian resistance, they were undone in the game’s dying moments.
Belgian captain Vincent Kompany, despite remaining with the squad, is still recovering from a hamstring injury suffered in their warm-up match against Portugal and is not expected to be fit until their final Group G game against England.
Yannick Carrasco is clearly not a left wingback and he struggled defensively against Panama, which means Nacer Chadli – who effectively played as such for a defensive West Brom side – could replace him.
There are also question marks over Axel Witsel in the middle, with Mousa Dembele a candidate to replace him.
Mouez Hassan was taken off with what looked like a shoulder problem against England, so backup ‘keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha will deputise in his absence.
Tunisia played well in their previous game, so it’s likely boss Nabil Maaloul will stick with the same 4-1-4-1 formation, though they did control the game better with a shift to a back five in the second half.
Key Battle: Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium) vs Ferjani Sassi (Tunisia)
Ferjani Sassi was indisputably Tunisia’s best player in their narrow defeat to England and not only scored their penalty, but was vital in the breakup of the Three Lions’ attacking moves. He was everywhere on the pitch, getting stuck in and aggressively closing down the likes of Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson and Jesse Lingard.
KEY STAT: Sassi made the second-most tackles of any Tunisian player against England.
Sassi was smart in his use of fouling to halt the flow of England’s attack and, as the game wore on, became an increasingly frustrating influence in the centre of the pitch for the English to navigate their way around.
As such, he will, again, be crucial if Tunisia hope to snatch a point off the Red Devils. He will, however, have his hands full in terms of quelling the creativity of Kevin De Bruyne.
The Manchester City midfielder is deployed in a deeper role for Belgium, which means he sees more of the ball in the middle third in their double pivot, but will have to be inventive to beat Sassi.
KEY STAT: De Bruyne made more key passes (4) than any other player in Belgium’s win over Panama.
De Bruyne was on form against Panama and his passing was instrumental in their 3-0 victory, making an exquisite outside of the boot pass for Romelu Lukaku’s first. More of the same is needed in this fixture.
A sacrifice for the greater good
The Manchester City playmaker ended the game with an assist, but that particular pass was only the second time he successfully found Romelu Lukaku. It took him 49 minutes to make his first of the game into the striker.
This is because he was playing too far away from his best position, in a double pivot with Axel Witsel in a 3-4-3 system. He’s tasked with more duties than is necessary for a player of his ability, when what he needs most is the freedom he received at the Etihad.
Essentially, Roberto Martinez needs to get him in a more advanced position, so he can play that ‘free eight’ role with out the constraints of a two-man midfield.
Read more tactical analysis on Belgium HERE.
However, the only way to do so is dropping Dries Mertens and playing De Bruyne as one of the inside forwards, or changing to a 3-5-2 system and reinforcing the midfield with another body, which also means dropping Mertens.
Would sacrificing Mertens be for the greater good?
Despite a 3-0 victory, Belgium’s performance against Panama was not reflective of the dominance such a result suggests and their weaknesses were evident.
For instance, Carrasco is simply not a left wingback and his natural attacking instincts often clash with Roberto Martinez’s instructions for him to defend.
A double pivot of De Bruyne and Axel Witsel is weak, with De Bruyne frequently vacating his position in search of more advanced areas, whilst Dedryck Boyata is the weak link in the back three.
This gives Tunisia a clear strategy for a positive result. Carrasco will spend more time in their half than his own, which leaves space in behind for right winger Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to exploit, whilst Sassi should try to play through the space left behind by De Bruyne on the break.
Wahbi Khazri, moreover, should target Boyata in the air, thus avoiding both Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. This will make life difficult for the Red Devils.
Prediction: Belgium 2-0 Tunisia
Expect more of the same from Tunisia – sitting deep, lots of niggling fouls aiming to frustrate Belgium -, but the Red Devils have too much firepower, which will eventually break the Tunisian barricade.
As per the game versus England, though, the longer Belgium stayed tied, the more confident Tunisia will grow, with their defence sitting deeper and deeper.
Manager Nabil Maaloul displayed a good tactical brain in his adjustments to frustrate the Three Lions and they won’t break easy to break down as Panama, but the Red Devils to win in the end.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Belgium and Tunisia’s round one performances in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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