Red alert: Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku chips the ball over Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo for his second and Belgium’s third goal in their World Cup Group G match in Sochi on Monday. Picture: REUTERS
Red alert: Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku chips the ball over Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo for his second and Belgium’s third goal in their World Cup Group G match in Sochi on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

Sochi — Romelu Lukaku netted a brace as a much-improved second-half performance gave Belgium an ultimately comfortable 3-0 victory over tournament debutants Panama in their World Cup opener in Sochi on Monday.

A moment of inspiration from Dries Mertens set the Belgians on their way two minutes after the break, his volley breaking the deadlock after a rather flat first period.

Lukaku then converted assists from Kevin de Bruyne and captain Eden Hazard to secure victory.

However, this was not entirely the statement of intent Roberto Martinez’s side would have been hoping to make.

A victory will do for a team who are, on paper at least, good enough to go far in Russia, especially after heavyweights Germany, Brazil and Argentina all slipped up at the weekend.

Belgium are now unbeaten in 20 matches, although the nature of the first-half performance against weak opposition showed that Martinez’s men still have significant progress to make if they are to improve on quarter-final appearances at the last two major tournaments.

To be fair to Belgium coach Martinez, he had warned on the eve of this game that his side would not have it easy.

The Central Americans lined up with a team of journeymen featuring five thirty-somethings. Jaime Penedo in goal is 36, while Blas Perez up front is 37. The Belgians had the younger, talented players, but other factors played in Panama’s favour.

The heat and humidity on Russia’s Black Sea coast was one, as was the fact their supporters greatly outnumbered those following the Belgians.

The locals at the Fisht Stadium got behind the outsiders too.

Hazard pulled the strings when he could, although the Chelsea star was denied by Penedo in the 38th minute.

At the other end, Panama tried to expose Belgium’s potential weaknesses at fullback. However, they struggled to score in qualifying and rarely looked capable of beating Thibaut Courtois.

Belgium just needed a spark from somewhere, and they got it from Mertens two minutes into the second half.

The Napoli man’s cross looking for Lukaku was headed out by Roman Torres and on by Fidel Escobar.

But the ball dropped perfectly back to Mertens, whose volley from the right side of the box arced into the far corner with keeper Penedo well beaten.

Panama sought to regroup and rightback Michael Murillo came surging forward to finally force a save from Courtois.

But the gulf in class began to tell as Belgium doubled their lead. Hazard found De Bruyne, and his sumptuous cross with the outside of the right boot was headed in by Lukaku.

With Panama forced to throw more bodies forward, they were punished on the break a quarter of an hour from the end.

This time Hazard released Lukaku, who beat Penedo to complete the scoring and take his tally to five goals at major tournaments as Belgium get up and running.

With wounded world champions Germany up next, Sweden could not have got off to a better start to their campaign than Monday’s win over South Korea, said coach Janne Andersson after their 1-0 victory at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.

"Three points in the bag," he chortled at the end of the post-match media conference after a 65th-minute penalty, awarded only following a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review, secured the win.

"I felt the wait for the VAR was unnecessary. There was no doubt that the penalty should have been called straightaway. Luckily the referee had VAR to help him to be able to make the right decision," Andersson said.

Kim Min-woo brought down Viktor Claesson in the box but Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar initially waved the Swedes away, before being called back to consult and then awarding a spot kick that Andreas Granq-vist tucked away.