Belgium take on Panama in the opening game for each side in the World Cup on Monday. Roberto Martinez’s Belgium currently bear the pre-match billing of favourites to progress from their group, whilst their Central American opponents face an uphill battle to advance from Group G, which also contains England.
Monday’s encounter may not provide the sternest test which lies before Belgium in this summer’s tournament in Russia, but will provide a good barometer of how prepared the Red Devils are for action on the world’s biggest stage.
Martinez boasts one of the strongest squads at the tournament, with a wealth of household names at his disposal in Russia. Panama, conversely, are one of the real underdogs not only in Group G but in the tournament as a whole. Hernan Dario Gomez’s side will be desperate to earn a positive result on Monday to shed any pre-tournament nerves and unfavourable odds against them.
Belgium gathered some storming momentum over the course of their two pre-tournament friendly matches prior to heading out to Russia.
A comfortable 3-0 dispatching of Egypt was followed up by a resounding 4-1 win over Costa Rica. Whilst many of the other World Cup favourites squeaked clear with narrower friendly successes ahead of the tournament, Belgium fired on all cylinders.
Romelu Lukaku found the net three times over those two matches, whilst fellow attacking stars Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens were also among the goals. Seven goals scored and only one conceded by Roberto Martinez’s side over the two games certainly bodes well for the step up to competitive action ahead.
Panama, meanwhile, endured rather less encouraging results in their corresponding friendly matches ahead of Monday’s opener against Belgium. A 0-0 stalemate with Northern Ireland was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Norway ahead of their flight to Russia.
Panama will be keen to make their underdog tag work in their favour as a side who have nothing to lose on Monday, against a Belgium team of whom much is expected in the coming weeks.
The two nations have never previously met, meaning that regardless of the outcome and quality of the encounter, Monday’s game will go down as a historic match.
As was displayed with emphatic evidence against Egypt and Costa Rica prior to the start of the tournament, Belgium’s attacking juggernaut is in rampant form and the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens will surely be desperate to kickstart their goal-scoring campaigns in Russia against a Panama side who will struggle to contain the quality of Roberto Martinez’s attacking stars.
Fidel Escobar and Roman Torres are likely to feature at the heart of the Panama defence and will therefore be the two men primarily tasked with manning the barricades against Belgium’s striking stars. The power and movement of Lukaku will cause problems, and the two centre halves must hold firm against the Manchester United number nine.
Eden Hazard, meanwhile, will look to cut in from the left-hand side at will, as he has become famed for at Chelsea, and attack the heart of Panama’s defence with his pacey and powerful direct runs through the channels. Adolfo Machado will likely line up at right back for Panama and must be disciplined and tuck in to support his central partners to ensure that his side do not fall victim to Hazard’s old tricks.
Roberto Martinez deployed two very similar sides in the two friendly matches against Egypt and Costa Rica ahead of the tournament in Russia, both in terms of shape and personnel, and it appears he has found a winning formula which will likely provide the blueprint for Belgium at the World Cup.
A 3-4-2-1 system has proved effective, providing an ideal balance between defensive resolve and attacking potential. The back three will likely continue to be flanked by Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, with the central berth between the two likely to be occupied by Dedryck Boyata in place of the injured Vincent Kompany.
Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel sit at the heart of the midfield four, providing an effective mix of flair, creativity, dynamism and steel. Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier provide the energetic wide outlets from their wing back roles.
Belgium’s real stardust resides within the fearsome front three of Lukaku, Hazard and Mertens, which will look to continue the fine run of form and momentum gained ahead of the tournament. Hazard had been subject to an injury scare ahead of the start of the tournament, but those concerns have since been played down by Martinez, and the Chelsea winger will surely start as captain of the side on Monday.
Panama, meanwhile, are troubled by a couple of injury concerns ahead of their Group G opener. Jose Luiz Rodriguez recently limped out of training with an injury to his left thigh with a matter of days to go before the start of the tournament. This followed on from Panama’s loss of attacking midfielder Alberto Quintero to injury, who broke a foot during his side’s 1-0 friendly defeat to Norway.
Whilst the underdog spirit of Panama, as well as the step up to competitive action, will likely mean that the task ahead of Belgium on Monday is not as straightforward as it seems on paper, the abundance of quality which Roberto Martinez’s side possesses in every area of the pitch will surely tell.
Panama pose relatively limited attacking threat and will be tasked primarily with attempting to absorb the pressure of Belgium’s likely dominance and attacking force in the match. Lukaku and Hazard will surely be gunning to get off to a flying start in front of goal, and their attacking quality should prove far too much for Panama to handle.
Score prediction: Belgium 5-0 Panama