June 19, 2018 / 10:04 AM / a month ago

Panama stroll fails to calm Belgian nerves

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belgium coach Roberto Martinez declared himself delighted with a 3-0 win over World Cup debutants Panama but there were plenty of issues that will encourage England after their own winning start in Group G.

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scores their second goal. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“Maybe we should stop the talk about a ‘golden generation’. There wasn’t much gold on show against Panama’,” wrote Hugo Camps in Het Laatste Nieuws, one of many commentators less than convinced by a scoreless first half and holes at the back that England and Tunisia will hope to better exploit.

“This way, disappointment is lurking around the corner.”

Looking to an anticipated group decider in Kaliningrad next Thursday after England overcame Tunisia 2-1 at the death, London’s Daily Telegraph found Belgium “rigid and witless”, despite the Red Devils being able to field more Premier League talent than the English themselves.

In attack, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, of Chelsea and Manchester City respectively, combined to release Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku for two well-taken goals after a wonderful solo volley from Dries Mertens had broken the deadlock and steadied Belgian nerves.

But too many passes went astray, notably from De Bruyne, who has long struggled to replicate his club form for his country, and at the back Panama found space, forcing Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois to show his class in denying a breaking Michael Murillo a quick equalizer.

Martinez eventually abandoned the three-man back line with which he kept faith through an unbeaten qualifying campaign, beefing it up to four toward the end. With defensive pillars Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen out injured, he said he expected to deploy to a four-man line in future games in Russia.

Their next opponents will be a wounded Tunisia on Saturday.

Former Belgium striker Marc Degryse said he was confident the players Martinez has tried to mould into a resilient unit would step up a gear.

“Against Tunisia, I expect we’ll do more when we have the ball, in passing, making the right choices, playing at a higher tempo,” Degryse said. “As a group, we can be 30 percent better.”

But after watching Harry Kane lead England to victory in injury time, he had a warning for Martinez: “Watch out. This England side has something. Young and inexperienced, vulnerable, but no less dangerous — and their captain is leading the way.”

The group winners will face the runners-up from Group H — Poland, Senegal, Colombia or Japan. Both Belgium, semi-finalists in 1986, and 1966 champions England, who last reached the semis in 1990, are desperate to end long years of disappointment.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Philip Blenkinsop, editing by Ed Osmond

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