Lukaku brace fires Belgium to victory against Panama
Romelu Lukaku (Getty Images)
Sochi - Romelu Lukaku netted a brace as a much-improved second-half performance gave Belgium an ultimately comfortable 3-0 victory over tournament debutants Panama in their Soccer World Cup opener in Sochi on Monday.
As it happened: Belgium 3-0 Panama
A moment of inspiration from Dries Mertens
set the Belgians on their way two minutes after the break, his volley breaking
the deadlock after a rather flat first period.
Lukaku then converted assists from Kevin De
Bruyne and captain Eden Hazard to secure victory in this Group G clash, with
the Central Americans succumbing to a defeat in their first-ever match at the
Group rivals England will look to respond
to Belgium's win when they kick off their campaign against Tunisia, but this
was not entirely the statement of intent that Roberto Martinez's side would
have been hoping to make.
A victory will do for a team who are, on
paper at least, good enough to go far in Russia, especially after heavyweights
Germany, Brazil and Argentina all slipped up over the weekend.
Belgium are now unbeaten in 20 matches,
although the nature of the first-half performance against weak opposition
showed that Martinez's men still have significant progress to make if they are
to improve on quarter-final appearances at the last two major tournaments.
To be fair to Martinez, the Spaniard had
warned on the eve of this game that his side would not have it easy.
The Central Americans lined up with a team
of journeymen featuring five thirty-somethings. Jaime Penedo in goal is 36,
while Blas Perez up front is 37. But while the Belgians had the younger,
talented players, other factors played in Panama's favour.
The heat and humidity on Russia's Black Sea
coast was one, as was the fact their supporters greatly outnumbered those
following the Belgians.
The locals at the Fisht Stadium got behind
the outsiders too, and they were given encouragement as Hernan Dario Gomez's
side competed well in the first period.
Hazard pulled the strings when he could,
although the Chelsea star was denied by Penedo in the 38th minute, having
earlier found the side-netting when a slack back-pass from opposing captain
Roman Torres gifted him the chance.
At the other end, Panama tried to expose
Belgium's potential weaknesses at full-back. However, they struggled to score
goals in qualifying and rarely looked capable of beating Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium just needed a spark from somewhere,
and they got it from Mertens in the 47th minute.
The Napoli man's cross looking for Lukaku
was headed out by Torres and on by Fidel Escobar. But the ball dropped
perfectly back to Mertens, whose volley from the right side of the box arced
into the far corner.
Panama sought to regroup, and right-back
Michael Murillo came surging forward to finally force a save from Courtois.
But the gulf in class began to tell as
Belgium doubled their lead midway through the second half. Hazard found De
Bruyne, and his sumptuous cross with the outside of the right boot was headed
in by Lukaku.
With Panama forced to throw more bodies
forward, they were punished on the break a quarter of an hour from the end.
This time Hazard released Lukaku, and the
Manchester United man beat Penedo to complete the scoring and take him to five
goals at major tournaments, as Belgium get up and running.