Tuesday 25 September 2018

Belgium's golden generation get job done but fail to set world alight

Belgium 3 Panama 0

Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku celebrates his second goal against Panama. AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku celebrates his second goal against Panama. AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

James Ducker

The good news for England is Panama are, to put it kindly, not very good but then Gareth Southgate probably knew that already.

No, the better news here for the England manager is that Belgium were not that slick either and, at the very least, seem to be wrestling with a number of alarming kinks that no one can quite be sure if Roberto Martinez will be able to iron out.

A quick glance at the scoreline would suggest this was a breeze and, certainly by the end, it had become an exercise in the routine. But, for long periods of the game, Belgium's golden generation looked very much like how England's golden generation of the not so distant past invariably did at tournaments - considerably less than the sum of their parts.

With talent heaped upon talent, there is always the hope that talent will eventually win out and there was a show-stopping moment at the start of the second half when Dries Mertens wholloped a divine volley into the top corner to put Belgium in front but, boy how it was needed.

It was hard to figure out what Belgium were trying to do in an opening 45 minutes and, at that point, it certainly seemed fair to wonder if much had changed from Euro 2016 when Marc Wilmots' tactics were torn apart and he was sacked, to be replaced by Martinez.

For a good while before he finally got the sort of delivery he could work with to score twice in six minutes, Romelu Lukaku must have felt he had been transported back to Old Trafford in December when Manchester United lost the derby 2-1 to rivals Manchester City.

Eden Hazard tries to squeeze the ball past Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Eden Hazard tries to squeeze the ball past Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The United striker touched the ball only seven times in that opening period but it was hardly his fault. Belgium were crying out for Yannick Carrasco or Thomas Meunier to cut inside from their wing-back positions, and/or one of Eden Hazard and Mertens to drop in, to help create some numerical supremacy in the middle.

Belgium were rigid and it suited a severely limited Panama down to the ground. They must have feared having to contend with repeat overloads and a fluid blur of bodies and movement but it failed to transpire and Belgium were rather witless as a result.

Axel Witsel, for one, looked like he has spent a lot longer than the past 18 months in China when the dynamism of Tottenham's Mousa Dembele or Youri Tielemans, of Monaco, might have been of better assistance to Kevin De Bruyne.

There were a hotpotch of half-chances for Belgium. A dreadful back pass by Roman Torres put Hazard in but the Chelsea forward shot into the side-netting. The game was screaming out for some quality, an assured touch and Mertens obliged within two minutes of the restart.

Dries Mertens volleys Belgium into the lead. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Dries Mertens volleys Belgium into the lead. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

His cross had been only partially headed clear by Torres, leaving Fidel Escobar and Hazard to challenge for the ball. It popped up and Mertens had only one intention, cracking a superbly controlled volley across Penedo and into the far corner.

It was exquisite stuff and a reminder that Belgium do have an abundance of players who can conjure a bit of magic.

One of the concerns for Belgium is the space their wing-backs leave in behind, particularly as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are hardly the speediest defenders, and that Achilles heel was exposed when Michael Murillo raced in behind to latch on to Edgar Barcenas' floated pass.

Fortunately for Martinez, Thibaut Courtois was quick off his line to thwart Murillo. That was at 1-0. If Panama had scored, an upset might just have been plausible. As it was, Belgium began to exert more control and scored twice through Lukaku.

Romelu Lukaku heads in Belgium's second goal. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Romelu Lukaku heads in Belgium's second goal. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

For the first, Hazard weaved past a couple of bodies and passed to De Bruyne, who cut inside his marker and then played a lovely cross with the outside of his right boot to Lukaku, who stooped to head home. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Thibaut Courtois and Jan Vertonghen combine to stop Panama's Michael Amir Murillo. Photo: REUTERS/Max Rossi
Thibaut Courtois and Jan Vertonghen combine to stop Panama's Michael Amir Murillo. Photo: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Telegraph.co.uk

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