If there has been a theme of the 2018 World Cup through five days, it has been underwhelming performances from favorites.
Entering Monday, of the six nations most commonly tipped for success in Russia, four had failed to win. A fifth had needed VAR, an own goal and goal-line technology to scrape by an underdog. And the sixth?
The sixth was Belgium, which kicked off its campaign against Panama in Sochi on Monday. And despite what scoreboards will tell you, it fell in line with the trend.
The Red Devils beat Panama 3-0 behind Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. But they sputtered in a game through which many expected them to stroll. And they needed an early contender for goal of the tournament to bail them out.
Mertens broke a 0-0 tie with a majestic 47th-minute volley.
And from there, the game opened up for the Belgians. But they had to work for their three points.
Belgium’s first-half struggles
Belgium has as much top-tier attacking talent as any team in Russia. But against a Panamanian side content to sit deep, and determined to rupture the game’s rhythm with foul after foul, the favorites had trouble in the first half.
Both Hazard and Mertens, playing as wide forwards behind Lukaku, struggled to find space behind a crowded five-man Panamanian midfield. Panama’s fouls functioned just as planned.
And Belgium was sloppy. It under-hit passes out to wingbacks. It mis-hit through-balls and took a few shoddy first touches in important moments.
At halftime, a draw wasn’t difficult to envision. But Mertens broke the deadlock in style, and the game changed.
Panama was always going to get one chance. One chance to score a famous goal and nab a famous result. That chance came after 54 minutes.
Belgium is borderline incapable of a complete defensive clampdown because it has players like Yannick Carrasco, a true attacking winger, shouldering responsibility. The left wingback switched off with Panama maintaining some rare attacking-half possession. Panamanian right back Michael Murillo sprinted past him, and in behind the Belgian defense.
Murillo’s shot was turned away by Thibaut Courtois, though, and it was the last clear look at goal Los Canaleros would get while a draw was within reach.
They had to chase the game, but just weren’t capable. And once they came out of their defensive shell, they were hopeless.
Belgium breaks the game open
One moment of brilliance from De Bruyne put the game to bed. He poked a swerving cross into a dangerous area. Lukaku, who was barely onside, powered his header in for 2-0:
Lukaku’s header was nice, but how about that pass by De Bruyne though.
Source: Henry Bushnell