Belgium rode a brace from Romelu Lukaku and a stunning volley from Dries Mertens to beat a brave Panama side on their World Cup debut 3-0 in their opening Group G game at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi on Monday.
Mertens hammered home a superb volley two minutes into the second half, sending the ball arcing over Jaime Penedo after Panama struggled to clear a cross.
Lukaku’s hard work up front was rewarded when he headed home Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliant pass off the outside off his foot to make it 2-0 in the 69th minute and the big striker latched on to an Eden Hazard pass to complete the scoring with a neat finish.
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The announcement of the first team to represent the Central American nation at the World Cup finals was greeted by an ear-splitting roar from the thousands of flag-waving Panamanian fans dotted in clusters around the Fisht Stadium.
Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez, felt Panama learned a lot in their first World Cup match, “I think we have learned a lot from today’s game. It was a very emotional day. This is the fifth time I’ve been at a World Cup but it felt like the first.
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“The team was still very emotional at the start of the match but as time went by, they were able to focus better. It was an incredible experience for our country and I think that our performance was not bad. You’re never happy when you lose but I told my players that they lost with dignity,” he added.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez also felt the weihgt of the occassion got to their opponents, saying that his team were the more patient team.
“That first win in the World Cup is always a special moment. Panama, as we expected, played very organised, very well-drilled (but) we were patient,” Martinez told reporters.
“The second half, that little bit of quality of Dries Mertens and then Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku with Kevin De Bruyne being instrumental in those attacks.”
The opening goal came as a relief to the Belgians, who have seen other favourites struggle against well-organised opponents in the opening round of World Cup games.
“It was tough. A long run-up to the World Cup and finally you have the first match and everybody expects so much,” Martinez said.
“You have such an urge to run and do your thing and then you notice your legs don’t co-operate. You see it with every team in their first match. I hope the second match goes better,” the Spaniard added.
The Belgians put their slow start behind them in the second half as their passing game started to click, but Panama still managed to find opportunities for counter-attacks and were unlucky not to score.
“It is a result that can’t be positive because we lost 3-0 but they could have won by a landslide,” Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez told a news conference.
“I think we did a good job – some people thought we would lose by seven goals but it was only 3-0,” he said.