Thomas Meunier, who came on for Timothy Castagne in the first-half after the Leicester City midfielder suffered what appeared to be a concussion, also scored and set up another for the classy Belgians.
Story of the game
Talisman Eden Hazard started on the bench along with Kevin De Bruyne, who was not risked from the start after having facial surgery – but Belgium still had plenty of attacking threat on the pitch with the in-form Romelu Lukaku leading the line.
Russia went into the games looking to fight some demons, considering they had lost comprehensively to the Red Devils twice during the qualifying stage.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side got off to a poor start, however, and it was the aforementioned Lukaku that drew first blood, pouncing on a mistake from Andrey Semenov, swivelling quickly on the spot and slotting home with a cultured first-time finish.
The Belgian forward was in a clear offside position when Yannick Carrasco’s initial cross was delivered, although Semenov’s clear intent to play the ball meant the goal stood and the number one ranked team in the world were off and running.
The subsequent celebration from Lukaku was poignant as he ran to the nearest camera and said, “Chris, Chris, I love you.” A clear sign of compassion and respect for his Internazionale team-mate, Christian Eriksen, who had collapsed on the pitch in the Denmark-Finland fixture.
A clash of heads between Castagne and Daler Kuzyaev half an hour into the game led to early changes for both teams. The former was replaced by Meunier and the latter by World Cup hero Denis Cheryshev.
The Russians were doing most of the running in the first half, as they struggled to dispossess Belgium, who were comfortable in possession – the three centre-backs of Jan Vertonghen, Dedryck Boyata and Toby Alderweireld all had plenty of touches.
With all that possession, Martinez’s side were ruthless; Meunier, who had just come on as a concussion enforced substitute, doubled the Belgian’s lead with a simple finish from close range after Anton Shunin spilt Thorgan Hazard’s dipping, in-swinging cross from the left.
Belgium, playing without two of their ever-present figures in De Bruyne and Hazard, left no stone unturned in the first period and fully deserved their two-goal lead at the break – Russia caused them no problems.
The team leading in the game started the second half with no real urgency. Russia, playing in front on home soil in front of their impassioned supporters, continued to toil for a way back into the game, pressing higher up the field but struggling to create chances.
Chercheshov matched Martinez’s tried and tested 3-4-3 system after the break to try and counteract the dangers Belgium offered and gain control of the midfield battle and the game as a whole.
They managed to stifle the Red Devils offensively but going forward remained a struggle – attacking midfielder Cheryshev, who came on as a first-half substitute, was subsequently taken back off on the hour mark.
Martinez was also missing his favoured midfield anchor, Axel Witsel, in this game. Still, Premier League contingent Leander Dendoncker and Youri Tielemens had a comfortable evening as the two central midfielders, which would have encouraged their manager.
The second period was largely quiet in terms of clear cut chances, up until Lukaku sealed the deal, breaking away from the Russian backline, latching onto Meunier’s through ball and slotting easily past Shunin in a one versus one situation.
Perfect start for golden boot contender Lukaku
His exemplary form in the 20/21 season, which powered Inter to the Serie A title, and his prolific goalscoring record for his country had many tipping Lukaku for the award pre-tournament.
His first and second goals of the tournament and 61st and 62nd for Belgium overall gets him off to a good start, and he should be confident of grabbing a few more in a group his side are expected to breeze through.
Russia ordinary at best
Aside from a brief period of sustained forward pressure at the start of the second period after a change of shape, the World Cup quarter-finalists failed to deliver in St. Petersburg.
Mario Fernandes was energetic as always down the right-hand side, and Artem Dyzuba had a handful of half-chances. Still, aside from that, they were frustrated all evening by the superior Belgians.
Setting up the second goal with a wicked cross that caught out the Russian 'keeper Shunin while completing 92% of his passes and winning two aerial duels, Hazard did all expected of him and more in his multi-lateral role of attacking wing-back.