Sochi, June 17 (IANS) A strong Belgium side boasting of some of the big names in the business will be expected to run riot against proverbial minnows Panama in a Group G World Cup clash here on Monday.
Wide forward Dries Mertens though cautioned his team not to take their opponents lightly after Iceland’s surprise draw with Argentina.
“Yeah, it is a World Cup, so every team that is there can play. They have something,” Napoli star Mertens said. “I think Iceland is a very good team and I hope we can play against Panama and play our game and that we can win.
“I don’t know that much (about them) but we are starting tonight with that,” he said of the Central American country.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez lauded Panama for getting to the World Cup.
“What I expect is a group with great ambition,” Martinez said. Getting to the World Cup was a great result for Panama and the Panamanian people. A team that knocked out a nation like the United States deserves a lot of respect. They are fighters, they have a great mentality and are very competitive.”
“I don’t expect an easy game. The first game in the World cup is always difficult,” he added.
The likes of Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne are three of the many names who star for their clubs throughout the season and will now look to click as a unit for Belgium on the biggest stage.
In the midfield, Mousa Dembele, Yannick Carrasco and Axel Witsel are expected to start.
Belgium had injury concerns at the back with veteran leader Vincent Kompany and FC Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen recovering and coach Martinez has sent standby defender Laurent Ciman home. Tottenham’s central defensive pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will be key to protect Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
Belgium were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign and after the quarter-final disappointment at Euro 2016, Martinez would aim to inspire his boys to do better.
On paper, a talented Belgium side should have way too much firepower for Panama, who make history in their first ever game at a World Cup.
Panama have built their reputation on a solid defence and a physical style of play under experienced coach Hernan ‘Bolillo’ Gomez.
The central Americans have not impressed in warm-up games and it remains to see if their first ever World Cup match will be a Cinderella fairy tale or a rude awakening.
Strikers Blas Perez and Ismael Diaz and defender Felipe Baloy, both 37, played big roles in their qualification campaign and they will be key to Panama’s chances. Aníbal Godoy and Armando Cooper are key midfielders.