Untwist your knickers, punderatti! The first half was a bit stultifying, but Belgian probed, Panama got some good stops from the keeper and a magical own-goal avoiding touch from the massive Seattle’s Ramon Torres. Yes, it wasn’t inspired, but nothing to get worried about--and that’s one of coach Roberto Martinez’s strengths: don’t get too ramped up. He’s already got a few hotheads, and they’ve never looked like the funnest team to be on. A little patience, a wonderstrike from Mertens, a DeBruyne magic ball to Lukaku, and then a classic Hazard run at the defense, leaving the middies in his dust and consummated by Big Rom’s calm to beat the excellent Penedo. In the end, a confident win, more or less.
Great spirit from Panama, from a rousing national anthem to a cohesive defensive shape and intensity and moments of genuine quality. They were miracle qualifiers and among the lowest ranked countries here, but they did themselves credit today. They look they can nick some results in their group if they don’t card themselves into trouble.
The big plusses today for Belgium for me were, first, two great reminders of how quick and big Courtois can get off of his line--he can save a team. I thought Boyata was really strong at the center of the defense, gives that back line a little more speed than they have with Kompany. The rest was what we’ve come to expect. Hazard was classic Hazard, causing problems by running at the defense and showing up all over the pitch. A happy Lukaku is a great thing to see, and this team could use a few smiles in general, I think. They definitely looked better when De Bruyne was more advanced, and Witsel was given the shuttling duties. Witself a lovely player for me, calm, resolute, makes it all look easy. Finally, they got one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from De Bruyne, so many unforced errors and sub-par free kicks--still managed to unlock a determined defense. He won’t play that poorly again.
What I don’t like: Carrasco. Can’t defend, gets into Hazard’s way on the flank, nothing to get excited about. Playing in China can’t be a great way to get ready for this. What are the other options? Dembele behind, Hazard wide would appeal, but then you’re leaving the back 3 exposed, arguably, because you don’t want Hazard defending deep. I feel like Belgium’s one player short for this formation; Meunier has the wheels, stamina and fiber on the right side, but they’re going to need something different on the left. I don’t know if Janusaz can run enough to do it, or if Thorgan Hazard can take it up. Chadli’s a hustler, but not inspirational there. What’s the answer? Finally, are they mentally fragile under stress? This is where Kompany’s presence can be so helpful. That said, Vermaelen--as I predicted, which hardly took insight--is already hurt (a shame of a career--such an inspired player when healthy), two yellow cards in the back today, Kompany not ready and would you really want to roll the dice on him going 90? I’m not sure Martinez has the right pieces.
On the other hand, the charms of the back 3 v. the modern back 4 were on display today when comparing Germany and Belgium. A back 3 would have helped Germany out so much yesterday.
So, Belgium comes through, the only really unscathed big boy to do so.