MOSCOW – Three thoughts on Belgium’s stylish victory over Tunisia to go atop Group G.
1. Belgium entertain as they go top Group G
Belgium continue to roll on sleekly and smoothly, impervious to the issues faced by many of their fellow contenders. They could have beaten Tunisia by far more here, eventually settling for 5-2 while playing some of the most incisive football this World Cup has seen so far.
Two goals apiece from Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, along with one from Michy Batshuayi, did the job and, while the distinctly moderate quality of their opponents must be taken into account, a team so laden with talent is purring through the gears ominously.
Roberto Martinez’s side could hardly have had a better start. Within five minutes Hazard had darted into the box from the inside-right, nipping ahead of Syam Ben Youssef and forcing a clumsy foul. The award was confirmed by VAR and Hazard, unperturbed by the delay, scored the spot kick with ease.
This was a scintillating start from Belgium and it was two within the quarter-hour. This time it was Lukaku, fed by Dries Mertens, who fired low into the corner. At that point, it seemed a case of how many goals the Red Devils might help themselves to.
Yet Tunisia pulled one back almost instantly, Dylan Bronn glancing home a Wahbi Khazri free-kick. Bronn would, moments later, succumb to injury and be replaced; Tunisia would improve significantly over the rest of the half but were, cruelly, undone again with its last action. This time Lukaku ran onto Thomas Meunier’s slide-rule pass and clipped past Ben Mustapha.
It was hard not to assume the game was over.
That impression was confirmed six minutes into the second half when Hazard, streaking onto a long Kevin De Bruyne pass, rounded Ben Mustapha and, at high speed, showed impressive composure to finish.
There was no need for Belgium to continue at full tilt although they continued to play some slick football on the break. Hazard and Lukaku were given the latter part of the game off, presumably to keep them fresh for a first-place showdown against England. Batshuayi, one of their substitutes, was denied by a goalline clearance, a crossbar and a fine save as openings came and went; when a fourth chance arrived late on he put it away and even a last-gasp consolation from Khazri could not mask the scale of the rout.
2. Romelu Lukaku in prime position to win the Golden Boot
Will this be the year Lukaku wins the Golden Boot? It would certainly settle any arguments that still rumble on about his quality.
He has started this World Cup in blistering form. Lukaku’s brace here draw him level with Cristiano Ronaldo on four goals and, at this rate, he could close in on the eight scored by another Ronaldo — the Brazilian version — in 2002. That is the biggest tally anyone has managed since 1970 and, when he is in this kind of mood, anything seems possible for the 25-year-old.
Martinez had pointed out before the game that Lukaku was benefiting from a simplified approach to his football. “His role is of someone who can score goals,” the manager said, and while that sounds like a truism it seems clear enough that Lukaku is finding the right areas with greater regularity than at any time in his national team career. He is enjoying himself under a manager who showed faith in him at club level with Everton and has now scored 18 goals in his last 15 internationals — that is some statistic.
Single-mindedness may be a key to his upturn but there is another side to Lukaku, too. He went over in the box when racing Ben Mustapha for the ball in the 27th minute, having seen his first touch take him slightly too far away from goal. Some referees might have at least pondered awarding a penalty but Lukaku quickly signalled to Jair Marrufo, the American official, that he had not been fouled. It was a laudable act of sportsmanship.
Now that instinct needs to manifest itself against England and, no doubt, other opponents a notch or two up from Panama and Tunisia. There may still be questions to answer until he does that but, so far in this World Cup, Lukaku has achieved everything asked of him.
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3. What could have been for Tunisia
How much more competitive might Tunisia have made this group if they could start games properly? They will go home early unless Panama spring a major surprise against England on Sunday.
They may kick themselves that, in both of their fixtures to date, they have been overrun in the opening minutes.
In the defeat to England they could have been blown away inside a quarter of an hour, counting themselves fortunate to concede just once to Harry Kane in that time. Here against Belgium, they began as if half-asleep, shipping those first two goals and watching Belgium rip through them at will, and although they rallied admirably that sloppy opening proved to be their death knell.
It meant they were always chasing the game, although there were flickers of menace. Dedryck Boyata had to make one excellent challenge on the dangerous Saifeddine Khaoui and Khazri, always looking to try the unexpected, forced a save from Thibaut Courtois with an outrageous 35-yard effort.
Tunisia continued to play constructively when the game was beyond them, creating several half-openings after the interval, but the damage was done and the conclusion to make from their campaign is that they have — all told – been outclassed in the areas that matter.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.