Ultimately it was a comfortable victory for Roberto Martinez’s Belgian side – but what did we learn about England’s upcoming opponents?
Here, we take a closer look at Panama and Belgium – and the tests they’ll provide England.
Date with England: 1pm, June 24, Nizhny Novgorod
Danger man: England’s defenders will have faced far better forwards but Blas Perez, Panama’s joint-record goal scorer, nonetheless deserves respect and should be treated with caution. At 37 the veteran front man, who made his international debut 17 years before his World Cup bow, knows his game inside out and will be primed to seize what rare openings fall his way. Previously a hit in the MLS with FC Dallas, Perez is now playing for Guatemalan club Municipal but 43 goals in 114 caps isn’t to be sniffed at.
Strength: Managerial experience. Boss Hernan Gomez is leading a third different team at a third different World Cup. The Colombian took his home nation to France 1998 before managing Ecuador for the 2002 showpiece. While he and his teams suffered group stage exits in those competitions, they were only narrowly undone and, as he showed on Monday, his Panama team will be well-organised and determined in defence.
Weakness: Goal-scoring. Panama were nothing if not economical in their qualification to the World Cup, scoring just nine times in their 10 group games in the second phase of the CONCACAF system. None of their players scored more than twice on the road to Russia, when they progressed with a goal difference of -1, and their total of two shots on target against Belgium suggests England’s backline are likely to be busier starting attacks than stopping them. Michael Amir Murillo’s wasteful effort when through on goal on 55 minutes was further evidence of that.
Date with England: 7pm, June 28, Kaliningrad
Danger man: Eden Hazard. England’s players will need no introduction to the majority of this Belgium squad and will be well aware of what Chelsea ace Hazard can do one his day. Belgium have a host of talented creators but their captain is a key figure. Whether scoring himself or setting up team-mates, as he did for Romelu Lukaku’s second against Panama, England cannot afford to take their eye off the little wizard.
Strength: Attacking options. While Panama were able to restrict balls into Belgium striker Lukaku in the first half on Monday – he had just seven touches in the opening 45 – and stay close to Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, up popped Dries Mertens to volley in a superb strike to break the deadlock. That opened the floodgates, and allowed De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku to shine. And it’s that range of options which make this Belgium team an exciting prospect.
Weakness: Expectation. England supporters will need no reminding of how hype and expectancy can weigh heavy on even the most talented players, and it was tempting to wonder how Belgium’s own golden generation were coping with the pressure of being touted as favourites for the World Cup during a laboured first half against Panama. While they were able to step up in the second half and take the anticipated win, if they still require points against England in the final group game, Gareth Southgate’s side will be able to target that uncertainty.
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