NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Belgium’s credentials as a genuine outside bet for World Cup success face a tougher examination against Tunisia on Saturday after a relatively sedate opening against Panama.
Roberto Martinez’s star-studded squad emerged as 3-0 winners in their opening Group G game in Sochi on Monday but will likely find Tunisia a far more robust and defensively astute opponent when they meet at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow.
It will mean the creative acumen of captain Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne will be vital if Belgium are to move closer to the second round and effectively end Tunisia’s tournament.
Both Premier League standouts took a while to get going in Monday’s match but their obvious ability eventually made the requisite impact.
“The first game at any tournament is always a little tough and the heat also tired us out but after rest we’ll be ready to roll again,” Chelsea playmaker Hazard said in the build-up to the weekend’s clash.
De Bruyne set up the second goal for Romelu Lukaku with a characteristically innovative pass and the Manchester City midfielder said on Wednesday he saw that as his primary task at the tournament.
“I have to get the strikers into situations where they can score. If I do that, then I know I’m doing a good job,” he told reporters as Belgium were given a surprise day off.
Tunisia have a well-earned reputation in African football for their ability to close down matches through a combination of bloody-minded defense, time-wasting tactics and gamesmanship.
That approach almost paid off against England in Volgograd on Monday as they frustrated Gareth Southgate’s men for most of the second half after they pulled level 10 minutes before the break from the penalty spot.
However, their well-organized rearguard eventually caved in when they conceded from a late set-piece to lose 2-1 and will need to employ more ambitious tactics against the Belgians to keep alive their World Cup hopes.
Against England, they hardly made any attacking effort once they equalized, but to stay in contention they will need to end a 12-match winless streak at the World Cup finals, stretching back 40 years.
“I think we will have Belgium’s respect and we have our own ambitions of getting past the first round which Tunisia has never done before,” coach Nabil Maaloul said.
Additional reporting by Alastair MacDonald; Editing by John O'Brien