BELGIUM make their 2018 World Cup bow on Monday afternoon when meeting rank outsiders Panama in Sochi. Adam Goodwin (@AGJournalism) previews Group G's curtain-raiser.
Belgium v Panama | Monday 18th June 2018, 16:00 | BBC
Having a punt on Belgium to win this World Cup feels very much like betting on Wolves to win the Championship last season – if it all clicks, it could be special.
The wealth of talent available to Roberto Martinez is ludicrous, but is he the right man to lead them to glory?
Panama’s qualification was underwhelming to say the least. They only managed three wins from 10 games and finished with a -1 goal difference. It’s fair to say that no-one is expecting this group of players to pull up any trees in Russia, but they’ll certainly give it a good go.
Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellani, Mousa Dembele, Edin Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku… It could be your FIFA Ultimate Team, but these are just a handful of players that could feature for Belgium at the World Cup.
The Red Devils have one of the best squads going to Russia and are deservedly amongst the favourites to win this year’s World Cup.
But despite having arguably two of the Premier League’s best in Hazard and De Bruyne, there are still questions about whether the two can play together. They both play in attacking midfield behind Lukaku and Martinez will be hoping that they can both hit the heights that they did in the league last season.
Lukaku is also one of the Premier League’s biggest talents and we’ve seen that he relishes games against smaller sides. He still carries the tag of being a ‘flat-track bully’, but that could be useful against sides like Panama and Tunisia in Group G.
As I mentioned previously, Panama can count themselves lucky to be in Russia. But that won’t stop them from relishing the chance to perform on a big stage and, with a lot of the players currently playing in the MLS or in South America, potentially securing themselves big-money moves to Europe.
That being said, they have an ageing squad, with two 36-year-olds, a 37-year-old, and just three players 21 or under. This could be problematic against energetic Belgium and England squads and won’t help their chances of success.
The Canal Men are expected to sit deep and aim to counter-attack, and with Belgian’s wing-backs likely to push high-up the pitch, this could be an opportunity for them to exploit Martinez’s side. But with a real lack of quality, this seems unlikely, and keeping the score respectable seems a more realistic target for Panama.
The betting angle
Lukaku will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on this frail Panama side and I fancy the Manchester United striker to open his World Cup account on Monday.
You can back Lukaku to score and Belgium to win at 3/4 with Boylesports and after his 11 goals in qualifying, this looks cracking value.
Panama v Belgium – Romelu Lukaku to score and Belgium to win (3/4 Boylesports)