High-flying Belgium wary of 'minnows'

Much is expected of golden generation but Martinez says Panama 'have great mentality'

GROUP F

Belgium v Panama

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SOCHI • The day has finally come for Roberto Martinez, who cannot wait to lead an outstanding Belgium side into the World Cup as they prepare to take on Panama in their opening match today.

A team who sit third in the Fifa rankings and boast what has often been labelled a golden generation, featuring the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, have gone to Russia with a considerable weight of expectation on their shoulders.

They are strongly fancied to progress to the knockout phase as winners of Group G, despite being drawn alongside England, and so it would be a major upset if they slipped up in Sochi against the so-called "minnows" making their World Cup debut.

"I would like to see that the team can play a game, to see a team where they enjoy the responsibility that they carry," Martinez said at the Fisht Stadium on Saturday.

"I'm excited. I see the players work, I see them in training, and they are just desperate to perform for the fans back in Belgium."

Belgium's results under Martinez have been excellent, with last Monday's 4-1 friendly win over Costa Rica in Brussels meaning they are unbeaten in 19 matches going back almost two years.

DON'T WRITE THEM OFF

Getting to the World Cup has been a great result for Panamanian football. I am not expecting an easy game. They are fighters, they have a great mentality and are very competitive.

ROBERTO MARTINEZ, Belgium's Spanish coach, on the dangers of underestimating the World Cup debutants.

The prospect of facing England in Kaliningrad on June 28 is also a mouthwatering one.

The majority of Martinez's squad either play or have played in England but, for now, he is thinking only about Panama.

"Getting to the World Cup has been a great result for Panamanian football. I am not expecting an easy game," he said. "They are fighters, they have a great mentality and are very competitive."

Forward Dries Mertens added that Iceland's surprise 1-1 draw with Argentina on Saturday had served as a warning to his side.

"Yeah, it is a World Cup so every team that is there can play, they have something," he 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."

Improving on quarter-final exits at both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 has to be the aim, but Belgium's preparations have not been aided by defensive injury problems. The team will be without defensive stalwarts Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany when they kick off their campaign today.

Martinez admitted that neither player is in a position to feature in the encounter, and both could sit out their second game too.

"Thomas Vermaelen has improved very well, a little bit like we expected," Martinez said of the Barcelona man, who has been out since the middle of last month with a hamstring problem.

"He won't be involved against Panama, and then there is going to be a decision to try to use him accordingly when we see his match fitness. I think medically he could be fit for the next two games."

Meanwhile, Manchester City skipper Kompany is still trying to shake off the groin injury he suffered against in a warm-up friendly against Portugal two weeks ago.

"With Vinny Kompany, we are very confident with the progress he has made since the Portugal game, that he will be available to be involved in the third game of the group phase," the former Everton manager added.

That means Kompany would also sit out Belgium's game against Tunisia on Saturday but would be available for their potentially crucial last group match against England.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'High-flying Belgium wary of 'minnows''. Print Edition | Subscribe