A double from Romelu Lukaku helped Belgium to a comfortable victory in their World Cup opener as Panama fell to a 3-0 defeat.
The Red Devils are dark horses for this tournament again, but had to wait 47 minutes to break down a Panama side who were making their debut at the World Cup.
Dries Mertens got the first goal with a stunning strike and Lukaku took advantage of tired legs to seal a victory that gets Belgium off to the perfect start.
Roberto Martinez’s team play England in the final group game but will expect to go into the game with two wins while Panama were a fairy-tale story for even being at the tournament. The gulf in class was evident, but a hard-working defence coupled with an over-confidence from the Belgians meant the first half was a drag to watch.
There were only two real chances in the first half and as expected, it was the Europeans who created them. Eden Hazard is seen as a key man for them this summer and looked ready to go as a mazy run and nice pass played in Yannick Carrasco, but his shot was well saved by Jamie Penedo. Minutes later, a sloppy back-pass by Roman Torres meant Hazard was racing in on goal but he could only hit the side-netting from a tight angle.
The rest of the first half was difficult to watch for Belgian fans and Martinez will have been frustrated at what he was seeing. It’s debatable whether the players were taking their opponents too lightly but their lack of effort was clear to see so at half-time, the ex-Wigan and Everton boss had some motivating to do.
Whatever he said, it worked as Belgium were in front within two minutes. It was a piece of real class from Mertens and Panama will not feel aggrieved to concede a goal of this quality. After a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick was headed away, the ball perfectly for a volley from the Napoli man and he did not disappoint as he pinned the ball into the far corner, giving Penedo no chance at all.
It was the ability that everybody knew Belgium were capable of, but their lead was nearly taken away from them in the 55th minute. It was awful marking from winger-turned-wing-back Carrasco, but Michael Amir Murillo saw his shot saved by the legs of Thibaut Courtois in Panama’s best chance of the game.
That was the last of the hope for the underdogs though as Lukaku took the game by the scruff of the neck. The Manchester United striker scored his first goal of the tournament with a super diving header, but the outside of the boot cross from De Bruyne was an even better assist. Minutes later, Hazard raced through and slid across for the man hoping to be top goalscorer in the tournament. Lukaku took the chance brilliantly with a tidy finish and it was three points from the start for Belgium.