After some early angst, Belgium flashes World Cup potential
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — During the buildup to its World Cup opener, Roberto Martinez regularly reminded his Belgium squad the challenge was going to be far greater than what was being portrayed as an easy march through the group stage.
So as he watched some frustration and impatience build during a scoreless first half against Panama, there had to be a slight bit of satisfaction that what he preached was actually coming true. No matter what outside observers believed, this wasn't a cakewalk for Belgium.
"It was exactly as we expected. There are no easy games," Martinez said. "We started really well in the first 10 or 15 minutes and then Panama became very effective with their defensive structure and we got a little frustrated. Maybe in situations we normally find an extra pass we just got a little bit anxious. But I liked the way we reacted as a team."
Belgium eventually awakened and played an exceptional second half in its 3-0 win over Panama to open a tournament of massive expectations for the team. Belgium is unbeaten in its last 10 group stage matches, dating back to a loss to Saudi Arabia in the 1994 tournament. Belgium didn't qualify for the 2006 or 2010 tournaments.
After underwhelming performances in the past two major tournaments — the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros — anything less than a deep run will be considered another underachievement by Belgium's golden generation of stars. While it may have been a nervy first 45 minutes of the opener, a second half featuring two goals from Romelu Lukaku and a perfectly struck volley from Dries Mertens was precisely what everyone expected — a team with the talent as good as anyone in the tournament flashing that skill in a variety of ways.
"The first half was a little bit slow. We needed to play more with our quality," Belgium captain Eden Hazard said. "We saw in the second half when we play together we can score goals."
Belgium also avoided the fate of Spain, Argentina, Germany and Brazil, which stumbled and dropped points in their openers. While that foursome all have significant work ahead to get out of their groups, Belgium is exactly where it's supposed to be heading into its match on Saturday against Tunisia in Moscow.
Belgium was drawn into a group that appeared relatively easy. Hazard noted that, "People said Belgium would win every game but it's not simple." The expectation has been by the time Belgium gets to Kaliningrad for its group stage finale against England, it will likely just be playing for seeding in the knockout stage. But Tunisia caused England plenty of problems before giving up a late winner.
"We only need to concentrate on ourselves and see what we can do ourselves," Martinez said. "The way we play is the attitude of our team."
What also emerged in the second half against Panama was the versatility of Belgium's lineup. Rather than staying with the 3-4-2-1 alignment of the first half, Belgium actually become more "de-organized" — as Martinez said — over the final 45 minutes. The decision to allow players like Kevin De Bruyne and Hazard more freedom to roam led to better passing options that ultimately paid off.
"I think with the different types of players we have we can do it," Martinez said. "We need to do it. ... I think the players are ready to be flexible. It's going to be very important."