Head coach Roberto Martinez said on Monday he was satisfied at the spirit shown by Belgium’s football team in its first match at World Cup 2018, against Panama. Kept at bay in the first half, the Red Devils hit back in the second half, scoring three goals. “We grew as a team,” Martinez said at a press conference after the match.
Martinez said he was not surprised by the opposition put up by Panama in the first half. “That’s exactly what we’d expected,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy match. I think we started off well for the first 15 minutes. Panama was very solid defensively, with good organisation, which made us a bit nervous. We lacked speed in our passes in the early stages of the game. The tempo was not high enough to create real chances. However, we grew during the match.”
The Red Devils quickly opened the score after returning from the dressing rooms. “The second half was more what we expected,” Roberto Martinez continued. “Dries Mertens netted a very beautiful goal. The first goal was primordial. That gives you a moral boost. From that moment on, we had more space and we were more in control.”
Panama could have equalised a few minutes later if goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had not won his duel at the 54th minute. “Panama had one or two counter-attacks; you know you have to defend well when that happens,” the head coach explained. “We succeeded in keeping them at zero. We also saw the importance of Thibaut Courtois today. For 50 minutes he had nothing to do, but he succeeded in winning his duel at the right moment.”
Since the start of the World Cup, the big teams have had difficulty playing against the weaker nations. Did those results influence the performance of the Red Devils? No, says Roberto Martinez. “We need only concentrate on ourselves. The way we play depends on our attitude as a team,” he explained. “We knew we were not going to win the match in five minutes. You need to realise that at a World Cup, you need to play for 90 minutes. You need to be very careful.
“If you don’t score a goal quickly, you need to be prepared to work hard. That was the time to show maturity and collaboration. We knew we had individual talent, but that was the time to show that we are a team. Panama made great efforts in the first half and that needs to be stressed. It was complicated for them to keep up the rhythm after half-time.”
Referring to the treatment reserved for Eden Hazard during the match, Martinez said: “Everyone is authorized to prepare for a match as they wish; that’s part of the rules. What I’m afraid of is seeing one of the tackles deprive us of the chance of seeing a player like Eden Hazard on the field.
“I think that does not concern Eden alone. It’s valid for all players who have the skill to make a difference with the ball.”