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Romelu Lukaku double ensures Belgium stroll to win against Panama
June 20, 2018, 12:38 am
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In the end, the gap was too great and reality got in the way. The Panama manager, Hernán Dario “Bolillo” Gómez, had warned there would be four possible outcomes in every game when they reached the World Cup for the first time in history: they could win, they could draw, they could lose, and they could be goleado: roundly defeated.

In Sochi, where more than 4,000 fans had travelled 7,200 miles, outnumbering Belgian supporters by four to one – and where the Russians in the stadium were on their side too, Panama resisted for a while, competed too, but succumbed. “Yes we can,” they had chanted but no, no, they couldn’t. A wonderful volley from Dries Mertens and two goals from Romelu Lukaku completed the beating.

Gómez suggested the difference between these countries – in talent, history and the teams their footballers represent, even in physical condition – is greater than three goals. “It wasn’t seven,” he noted. “People can see three goals and feel ashamed, embarrassed, but we did not let ourselves down.”

Mertens plays for Napoli, while Lukaku is at Manchester United; the two players Mertens’ shot flew past, the goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and the centre-back Román Torres, are at Dinamo Bucharest and Seattle Sounders. Other clubs represented by the team ranked 55 in the world, the country with a population of 3.5 million, where baseball is still just about the most popular sport, include Dunajska Streda, Gent, and Bucaramanga.

There was disappointment and no recrimination. As Fidel Escobar ran up to hit a free-kick in the final minutes a metallic percussion greeted him. When Armando Cooper dashed through just after, only to be tumbled, they roared. There was pride as Panama sought to take something from this. Bolillo called the occasion “fantastic”. He added: “I told the lads they had played well and no one could point the finger.” Here, at least, they did not.

At the end, Belgium clapped their fans in the corner. Panama gathered in a circle and prayed. As they came away the stadium erupted in more applause. They had been goleado but they had been “worthy”, their manager said. Belgium got the win they sought, and ultimately a comfortable one, largely easing their way through the second half. “I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” Roberto Martínez said.

Dries Mertens celebrates after opening the scoring just after the interval with a spectacular volley.

Dries Mertens celebrates after opening the scoring just after the interval with a spectacular volley. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It took a while to find a way through. Forty seconds had gone when Lukaku sent the ball over the bar, yet if that seemed to suggest this was going to be ended early it did not happen. Bolillo had described just being at the World Cup as historic but he had expended much energy reminding everyone the most likely scenario was heavy defeat, seeking to reduce pressure and expectation. Asked if Iceland’s draw with Argentina gave them hope, he had been swift to highlight the differences. In summary: Belgium are better than Argentina and Iceland are better than Panama. Hope, though, springs eternal and Mexico had contributed – Germany’s victors had been helped by Panama in qualification.

When Yannick Carrasco shot into Penedo’s arms after six minutes a pattern was emerging and it was one they predicted. It was also one Bolillo said was a product of “nerves”, history. A minute later it was Mertens on the other side bringing the 36‑year‑old goalkeeper into action. And when Torres underhit a backpass Eden Hazard could only find the side-netting. Panama were hanging on and sometimes hacking clear, concern showing.

Slowly Panama found their feet – and occasionally burst forward, Cooper and Aníbal Godoy swift and direct in midfield, prepared to go at their opponents in straight lines, while Joel Bárcenas ran too, a sharp dash into the box, and Godoy almost got away not long after. After half an hour, Cooper’s neat overhead kick set them up and running again but Blas Pérez did not spot Bárcenas racing up the far side and although Panama got the ball back again and Cooper slipped it into the area for José Luis Rodríguez, he was blocked.

Naturally, the chances appeared mostly at the other end – where Penedo was quickly at the centre of this. Mertens hit the side-netting; another short corner almost caught Panama out; and Torres had to hook away inside his six-yard box. Kevin De Bruyne’s shot went over; Hazard sliced wide then dribbled into the area and was denied at the near post by Penedo; before the goalkeeper was out quickly to stop Lukaku. At half time, Panama’s players went into a huddle before heading for the tunnel. The message: we’re in this.

Soon, they fell behind – although it took something extraordinary. Mertens’s volley from the top right corner of area flew past Torres and Penedo two minutes into the second half. “That gave us breathing space,” Martínez said. “After that I thought we were ourselves. That goal was essential.”

De Bruyne’s shot curled just wide but while Panama’s energy dropped, they were not quite done just yet. Michael Amir Murillo was played into the area, almost alone, soon after. This was the moment. He waited a little long, Jan Vertonghen got across and Thibaut Courtois saved. “We saw the size of Courtois there,” Martínez said.

Belgium were in control; for Panama, the opportunity had gone. De Bruyne bent a wonderful cross with the outside of his foot to Lukaku to dive and head home before Hazard slipped a pass through to the striker. Running on to it, he clipped neatly over Penedo. “Panama deserve a huge amount of credit,” Martínez said. “And so do we.”

 

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