Belgium vs Panama Preview: Red Devils looking to kick-start campaign against World Cup debutants

Belgium vs Panama Preview: Red Devils looking to kick-start campaign against World Cup debutants

Can Belgium's array of individual talents mould into a World Cup winning unit?

Chris Lincoln

Two of England's Group G rivals begin their tournament with contrasting form and expectations.

Whilst Belgium qualified by scoring the joint highest number of goals seen by a European team challenging to reach the World Cup, Panama won just three games during their qualification process. Can the debutants produce an upset?

Time to shine

Belgium's squad oozes talent and has been described as the 'Golden Generation'. Yet defeat to Wales in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 and a stuttery display in World Cup 2014, where they failed to score in the first 70 minutes of any of their matches before being knocked out by Argentina in the final eight, have caused many to question the Red Devils' temperament on the greatest stages.

However, Belgium have not only been in great form during qualification, where they progressed undefeated, but also in recent warm-up matches. After a goalless draw against Portugal, they defeated both Egypt and Costa Rica by three goals with the latter designed to prepare Roberto Martinez' side for this fixture.

Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens have both been in impeccable form the last month but even their performances have been overshadowed by another attacking duo in the squad. Eden Hazard looks almost unstoppable at present whilst Romelu Lukaku has scored 13 goals in his last nine international appearances.

Perhaps the greatest concern for Belgium is in defence. Both Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen will not recover from injury so Dedryck Boyata is expected to join the Spurs duo of Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen in the back three.



Lots of aggression, very little attacking intent

Panama will also be missing a key player in Alberto Quintero who fractured his foot only a handful of days ago. His 21-year old replacement, Ricardo Avila, brings the average age of the squad down from the oldest to the fifth most elderly in the competition. Look out for the Torres', Gabriel and Roman, who top-scored for Panama with just two goals apiece during qualification.

With six players boasting a century of international appearances, almost half the squad aged over 30 and a Head Coach who has taken two other nations to World Cups, Panama have experience but very little on such a stage.

Not much was known on European shores about Panama's style of play when they confirmed their place in Russia, although three wins in ten qualification matches suggest they are hardly a free-flowing side. Yet, since March, their approach has been clear for all to see.

They have played four European sides in friendlies to prepare for Belgium and England, conceding eight and failing to score in the process. Yet it is their aggressive nature that has raised a few eyebrows and such physical displays are expected to be in evidence again on Monday evening.

First meeting between the sides

Belgium will be expected to win comfortably and tend to be difficult to beat in the opening matches of World Cup tournaments. They have lost just one of their last nine such matches, with the solitary defeat coming against Panama's Central American counterparts Mexico 32 years ago.

Panama will be looking to cause an upset, as Mexico did against Germany on Sunday, but Belgium will be looking to use this match as the perfect opportunity to kick-start a whirlwind of momentum that could take them all the way to World Cup glory.