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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

No dream World Cup debut for Panama as Belgium and Lukaku prove too good

While not at their best the Belgians prove comfortable 3-0 victors in the opening of game in Group G

Romelu Lukaku had a lot to smile about as he scored twice in Belgium's 3-0 win over Panama. Marcos Brindicci / Reuters
Romelu Lukaku had a lot to smile about as he scored twice in Belgium's 3-0 win over Panama. Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

No fairytale at the Fischt stadium for the World Cup's other debutants. Iceland have held Argentina, and set a standard for novices by doing so. It was too high a bar for the next men making their bow.

Though Panama did keep Belgium at bay for more than a half of their first outing in the sport's great showpiece, they discovered belatedly that class can be masked only for so long.

Three-nil makes the scoreline look better, perhaps, than Belgium were, but they were potent enough for long enough to brush away a tough, and modestly talented Panama.

The losers were cheered at the end, and lingered on the pitch to feel the warmth of their followers. Well, Panama have been waiting 42 years for this.

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They only started putting their name down for World Cups in the mid-1970s and apart from heart-breakingly close effort that very nearly sent them to Brazil last time around, they have never really been close before that.

They had a lot of luck in the dramatic denouement to the CONCACAF qualifying process for Russia 2018, owe their place to one dubious goal and several unlikely outcomes of matches elsewhere in the region of the very last day. The tournament has no United States; the Panamians are here, effectively, because the Americans slipped up.

Their historic day had a beachside setting. Panamians approached the Fisht stadium, some of them in Panama hats, to protect against the sun, and some in full song, with an eagerness that betrayed their once-in-a-lifetime sense of anticipation.

In truth, there are many among them who would feel that to leave Russia with two defeats out of three would be a respectable debut.

As for the players, a high proportion know that this, their country’s first World Cup will almost certainly be their last.

Besides the 36-year-old goalkeeper, Jaime Penedo, and the striker Blas Perez, 37, there are veterans through the spine of the side.

One, Ramon Torres, still looked nervy early on, with a shy backpass that put Penedo in trouble and offered a half-chance to Eden Hazard. Penedo would save well from Hazard later but mostly Belgium were friustrated and a little dysfunctional until after the break.

An excellent goal lifted them, Dries Mertens' volley arching over Penedo, and there were perhaps two moments when the Panamanian miracle might have happened after that, through balls that found their recepients, Michael Murillo and Edgar Barcenas taken by stage-fright, flustered when they should have been calm.

It is understandable. These were unsung footballers sharing a pitch with Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.

And with Lukaku, whom Torres had matched physically until De Bruyne drew defenders away frolm the striker, and crossed for Lukaku to head home, stooping.

De Bruyne launched the move for Belgium's third, too, Hazard picking up the ball, ferrying it forward and supplying the pass for Lukakau to chip the goalkeeper.

The dark horses, Belgium, are into a gallop, but will want to play like that for closer top 90 minutes next time.