As one of the teams that finished ahead of the United States in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Panama made its first-ever appearance in the competition on Monday morning. Unfortunately for the small North American nation, it ran into Belgium, ranked third in the world who took down the debutants 3-0 in Group G play.
It was a less than convincing performance despite the scoreline from Belgium, who have aspirations of advancing deep within the competition after disappointing showings at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championships.
With a deep, well-rounded team that is laden with stars, the Red Devils sputtered as a brilliant second-half volley from Dries Mertens calmed nerves after a mediocre first-half showing. Romelo Lukaku, who was a no-show for more than half the match, emerged with two second-half goals to start his tournament on the right foot.
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The stage initially seemed as though it was too large for Panama, who nervously attempted to survive the first few waves of Belgian attacks. Somehow, it managed to go the entire first half without conceding despite heavy pressure which provided glorious chances for Mertens and Eden Hazard along with a cracking effort from Kevin De Bruyne that fizzed just above the Panamanian crossbar.
Belgium came closest in the opening half when a De Bruyne cross looked destined to be tapped into an open net by Lukaku, but Panama hero Roman Torres, whose goal in qualifying sent his country to the World Cup, slid in to get a vital touch to send it wide:
SO CLOSE! Roman Torres slides in at the last second to prevent the tap in for Lukaku. pic.twitter.com/tUZZLbufF1— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2018
It was a frustrating opening for the Belgians, who just seemed off in the opening 45 minutes. The connections weren't there, the star striker Lukaku was not involved enough and the midfield that is constantly dazzled by De Bruyne and Hazard did not distribute as crisply as what was expected. For the Panamanians, it was a victory.
Those feelings quickly evaporated in the second half when Mertens opened the scoring with a brilliant volley from the right side of the box two minutes in. It came from a difficult angle, but the Napoli man brought down a failed clearance off his chest, squared his body and thumped a dipping shot into the far corner:
PICK THAT ONE OUT!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2018
Dries Mertens hits the volley perfectly to put Belgium up 1-0. pic.twitter.com/Pkvv28VCYk
Panama almost provided a shocking answer seven minutes later when a ball over the top found Michael Murillo in alone on Belgian keeper Thibault Courtois, but a poor first touch allowed defender Jan Vertonghen to get back and ruin the chance.
It was a missed opportunity it would rue as Lukaku finally contributed to the Belgian cause, heading in a beautiful cross by De Bruyne who sent in a tantalizing pass with the outside of his foot right to head of the Manchester United striker to slot home his side's second tally of the day in the 69th minute:
Lukaku's header was nice, but how about that pass by De Bruyne thoughhh 👀 pic.twitter.com/LMdp9vMmbC— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2018
He would add his second in the 75th minute when Hazard sparked a counter-attack, releasing Lukaku with just the goalkeeper to beat. Before the onrushing Jaime Penedo could get to the ball, Lukaku chipped the sliding keeper.
Lukaku again!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 18, 2018
The forward gets his second of the game to make it 3-0 for Belgium. pic.twitter.com/zWiyKMma1B
At the end of the day, it's three points for Belgium, but concerns have suddenly surfaced around this team after the surprisingly subpar performance. This squad has been given "The Golden Generation" moniker given its depth of talent, yet this is a team that will have a very difficult time in the knockout stage should they advance as expected.