England expects as dark horses Belgium ease past Panama

Romelu Lukaku struck twice in Belgium's comfortable win

Volgograd (Russia) (AFP) – England open their World Cup campaign on Monday seeking to banish memories of dismal performances in recent tournaments after Romelu Lukaku scored twice as Belgium beat Panama 3-0. 

Belgium showed England, their main rivals in Group G, the way with a comfortable win against Panama in Sochi as Dries Mertens scored just after half-time before Lukaku headed in on 69 minutes and pounced again six minutes later.

England crashed out without winning a match four years ago in Brazi, and have not won a knockout match in any tournament since 2006.

Gareth Southgate’s team will be eager to start with a bang against the Tunisians in Volgograd after world champions Germany slipped up in their opening match against Mexico and favourites Brazil were held by Switzerland.

Southgate’s young charges arrived in Russia quietly confident after a solid qualifying campaign and encouraging friendly results against Brazil, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

Southgate’s lack of experience was widely discussed when he was appointed but the former Under 21s coach has cultivated an atmosphere of unity and a determination to bury past failures.

“This team shouldn’t be burdened with that because they’re a fresh group, most of them have very few international caps, so the future is all ahead of them,” Southgate told reporters.

England captain Harry Kane, who is yet to score a goal in a tournament, has vowed an aggressive approach against opponents expected to defend in numbers.

“First and foremost we are going to want to attack the game, we feel like we are going to have a lot of possession of the ball,” the Tottenham forward said.

England fans were outnumbered by Tunisian supporters in Volgograd after fewer than 2,000 tickets for the match were sold in Britain. 

The England supporters were given a warm welcome in the city formerly known as Stalingrad and were largely well-behaved although two fans were charged with public drunkenness after being detained on a train.

Belgium showed they might finally be ready to realise the promise of a talented crop of players as they gave Panama a torrid time in the Central American side’s their first-ever appearance in a World Cup finals. 

Coach Roberto Martinez, formerly of Everton in the Premier League, said he was “delighted” with the performance. 

“It was exactly what we expected — there are no easy games at the World Cup. We started very well but then became frustrated as the first half wore on,” he said.

– Sweden pip Koreans –

In Monday’s early game, Sweden — now without retired superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic — beat South Korea 1-0 in Nizhny Novgorod to go joint top of Germany’s group alongside Mexico thanks to a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) penalty.

Veteran Swedish skipper Andreas Granqvist scored the only goal of the game from the spot after Viktor Claesson was upended by South Korean substitute Kim Min-woo midway through the second half.

Despite furious appeals, El Salvadorean referee Joel Aguilar intially waved away Swedish penalty claims but after consulting the video, he pointed to the spot.

It was the third VAR penalty awarded in Russia after France and Peru also benefited from video referrals.

Germany are licking their wounds after slumping 1-0 to a Hirving Lozano strike in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium — the first time they have lost their opening game of a World Cup since 1982.

“I have not seen the German team so weak at a big tournament for a long time,” said West Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthaeus. 

“Almost everything was missing. There were concentration errors, unnecessary bad passes and also the attitude was not there.”

If Germany finish as Group F runners-up, they could face Brazil in a clash of World Cup titans in the next round. 

Brazil themselves started their Russian campaign with a whimper on Sunday when gutsy Switzerland battled back to cancel out a superb Philippe Coutinho strike, scoring through Steven Zuber’s powerful header.