Romelu Lukaku Brace Leads Belgium Past Panama in 3-0 World Cup Win

Gianni Verschueren@ReverschPassFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2018

Belgium's Romelu Lukaku celebrates after he scored his side's third goal during the group G match between Belgium and Panama at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Monday, June 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Belgium came through in their first match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Monday, beating debutants Panama 3-0 in Group G.

Romelu Lukaku scored twice and Dries Mertens also got on the board as Belgium patiently broke down their opponents in a routine win.

The Europeans entered the tournament among the favourites for the title, as they sit third in the FIFA rankings. With England and Tunisia also in Group G, they're expected to comfortably qualify for the knockout stages.

Here are the main takeaways from the match.

   

Lukaku Emerges As Golden Boot Favourite with Clinical Performance

Manchester United ace Lukaku has been in sensational form for the national team of late, and he added another two goals to his tally.

As shared by ESPN Stats & Info, he's been remarkably consistent:

With two goals already and elite passers all around him, the 25-year-old may well be the favourite for the Golden Boot race―especially considering he'll still face Tunisia and England's suspect defence.

For years, Belgium lacked a clinical, ace finisher who could make the difference in tight matches. While Panama are hardly elite competition, they did a fantastic job limiting Lukaku's touches, but he still came up big in the big moments.

The Red Devils can at times be complacent in front of goal, and in those moments, you need someone who can force the issue. They'll usually turn to Eden Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne, but in Lukaku, they may just have a third class player who can do just that in the knockout stages.

   

Belgium Must Find Intensity for Deep World Cup Run

Belgium have tremendous talent, and when things fall into place, they're capable of greatness. They play some of the best attacking football in all of Europe and can score in bunches, as evidenced by their record-breaking qualifying campaign.

But the Red Devils rarely play with high intensity for 90 minutes or even half that. Too often, they seem to almost lose interest, relying on their individual brilliance to beat opponents.

Sport Witness summed it up nicely:

Mertens' goal early in the second half didn't bring any changes, as Belgium sat back rather than look for a second goal. As a result, Panama started to find some chances, something that should never have happened.

Lukaku's two goals will overshadow the fact the Red Devils were lethargic at best for large stretches, but the latter point should be their main takeaway ahead of their second match.

Against a team like Los Canaleros, you might get away with complacency, but the favourites for the title will punish such a lack of urgency. Belgium need a shift in mentality ahead of the knockout stages, or their tournament could be a short one.

   

Panama Lack Tools Needed for Impact at 1st World Cup

The Panamanians were never expected to make life hard on the Belgians, and while they admirably held out in the first half, Mertens' wonder strike broke their resistance.

Los Canaleros barely crossed the midfield line before the opener, and while they had their chances afterwards, an upset always seemed unlikely.

Panama's run to the World Cup was a wonderful story, but they lack the sheer talent most teams in the tournament possess. Expect them to entertain against England and Tunisia, but a win seems highly unlikely.

   

Martinez's Tactics Remain Questionable

Roberto Martinez's 3-4-3 formation is an odd fit, and against Los Canaleros, its weaknesses were once again on full display. Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco weren't at their best, and without those two winning battles out wide, there was far too much congestion in front of goal.

In the centre of the park, De Bruyne plays alongside the underrated Axel Witsel, but the former is too often a long way from goal, limiting his creativity around the box. As a result, the Red Devils didn't create enough initially:

Space opened up once they scored, and in transition, the 3-4-3 system is a wonderful sight, with Mertens and Hazard cutting inside, De Bruyne finding the open man, Meunier and Carrasco bombing down the wings and Lukaku waiting for his moment.

But against a tight, organised defence, the 3-4-3 remains a limited system, especially if the wing-backs aren't on point. England—a team with tons of pace out wide and players who like to dive into space behind the full-backs—should have all kinds of opportunities to exploit.

   

What's Next?

Belgium face Tunisia on Saturday, one day before Panama take on England.

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