Preview: Belgium v Panama

Panama will be looking to cause a stir on their World Cup debut, while Belgium begin their quest to upset international football’s usual top dogs.

2018 FIFA World Cup
18 June 2018
Group G
Kick-off: 23:00 HKT
Venue: Fisht Stadium

Referee: J. Sikazwe
Assistants: J. Dos Santos, Z. Siwela
Fourth Official: R. Sato
Fifth Official: H. Yamauchi

Players to watch:

There are no shortage of stars in Belgium’s World Cup squad, but the standout player is Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. In a season which saw City smash Chelsea’s Premier League points record, he bagged eight goals and 16 assists in 37 appearances.

It is unclear whether or not head coach Roberto Martinez will select his strongest available side, but if he does, other key men will be Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

It is less simple to find household names in the Panama squad, but keep an eye on Roman Torres. The Seattle Sounders defender scored against Costa Rica to clinch qualification for his country and claims to have drawn interest from the likes of Blackpool, Swansea and Nottingham Forest in the past.

Team form and manager quotes:

Since the turn of the year, Panama have struggled to find form. A 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in April was followed by a 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland in May, but they have also suffered defeats at the hands of Denmark (1-0), Switzerland (6-0) and Norway (1-0).

Head coach Hernan Dario Gomez has experience at the highest level, having previously led Colombia and Ecuador to World Cup qualification before his success with Panama.

“I would say to the people: enjoy it, it’s high tide, we have a lot to learn, have a good time and be happy,” Gomez said.

Meanwhile, Martinez has claimed Belgium need to head into the tournament with the right mindset if they are to challenge the traditional big guns.

“The mentality is the biggest area we have to improve,” he said. “We need to work on the psychology and the mental aspect of being a team. We need the right mentality to get through the difficult moments of a game.

“When France and Spain did that, and won, there was a knock-on effect where they went on to win more trophies.”

The Red Devils head into the tournament in good form, having gone unbeaten since 2016.

Team news:

Hazard gave Belgium a scare when he limped out of the 4-1 friendly win over Costa Rica in the lead-up to the World Cup, but Martinez insisted the injury was “nothing to worry about”.

It will nevertheless be interesting to see whether or not Martinez starts Hazard in what is unlikely to be one of Belgium’s more challenging fixtures.