For a week or so, Belgium had been largely relegated to background noise, but on a steamy Saturday at Spartak Stadium, the Red Devils raised their voice.
The message was loud and clear: Do not underestimate us.
Two goals in 16 minutes, three by halftime, two more after the break and, honestly, they could have broken double-digits during a 5-2 destruction of Tunisia.
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In two Group G matches, Belgium has scored eight times, albeit against overmatched opponents. It’s not just the production, but the manner in which the Red Devils have executed it — with a ruthless attack featuring layers of threats.
They are carrying themselves like a team that won’t let anything get in their way. They’re having fun and so is the global audience. Whether they’re ready for greater tests in the knockout stage is the big question, as it’s been in other major competitions.
“We’re still growing,” Coach Roberto Martinez said. “We need to do better. We’re still in a process. Nothing changes.”
Nothing has changed in the way the soccer world has looked at Belgium: immensely talented but lacking intangibles. The Red Devils failed to get past the quarterfinals of both the World Cup four years ago and the European Championship two summers back.
Since losing to Spain in Martinez’s debut in September 2016, Belgium has gone 21 straight matches without a defeat (16-0-5).
Is this its time for a deeper run?
Perhaps. Consider the roster: 11 players from the Premier League, including stylish attacker Eden Hazard, bullish striker Romelu Lukaku and immaculate midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. In all, most of the 23-strong squad works year-round in top European leagues.
The starting lineup features nine players born between 1989 and 1993 — a so-called golden generation.
“We try to keep the ball. We try to play attacking football,” defender Toby Alderweireld said. “We have players who can make a difference. We’ll try to keep this going and improve ourselves as well because it wasn’t perfect. But five goals, we’re very happy.”
They are happily atop the group heading into Thursday’s showdown with England in Kaliningrad.
Before looking ahead, Martinez said he would let his team enjoy Saturday’s romp — one that took flight early and did not relent, even after Martinez pulled Lukaku and Hazard early in the second half after they had scored two goals apiece. Martinez told reporters after the match that Lukaku had pain in his right ankle and Hazard hurt a calf muscle. With advancement secured, he could opt to rest the stars against England.
Michy Batshuayi added the final goal in the waning moments, a deserved honor after getting denied by a goal-line clearing defender, the goalkeeper and crossbar. Never before had Belgium scored five times in a World Cup match (it has played 43 overall).
There were concerns, however. Tunisia — which in its opener had tested England before falling in stoppage time — exposed gaps in Belgium’s resistance. If Belgium could have scored 10, Tunisia rightly could’ve had four.
“For us, it’s getting the right balance on the pitch,” Martinez said. “Talent on its own is not enough.”
Nonetheless, he added, “Winning is always the best formula to gain confidence.”
Belgium went ahead in the sixth minute when defender Syam Ben Youssef crashed into Hazard on the edge of the box. Hazard dusted himself off and converted the penalty.
In the 16th, Dries Mertens took the initiative after pouncing on a soft Tunisian pass in midfield and slotted the ball to Lukaku for a 16-yard finish to the far corner.
Tunisia answered two minutes later when Dylan Bronn nodded in Wahbi Khazri’s well-placed free kick to the center of the box. (Khazri scored in the last moments of the match, as well.)
The only interruptions to the wildly entertaining half were for numerous injury stoppages, which also served as water breaks on an uncomfortable day (82 degrees, 64 percent humidity).
Tunisia lost Bronn to an apparent knee injury in the 24th and Youssef in the 41st, leaving Coach Nabil Maaloul with one sub on an afternoon when fatigue, caused by the weather and pace, took hold.
Before the half expired, Lukaku struck again, accepting Thomas Meunier’s entry pass and chipping the ball over advancing goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha for his fourth goal of the tournament.
Tunisia continued exposing the Belgian backs at the start of the second half, but after failing to capitalize, the Red Devils were merciless.
Hazard split two defenders to take in Alderweireld’s delicious through ball, touched past the desperately charging Ben Mustapha and took care of business.
With the outcome settled and England on the horizon, Lukaku and Hazard exited with ample time to spare.
Rousing ovations ushered them off. This was Belgium’s day through and through. Several more, perhaps, remain on the agenda.
— Steven Goff
Belgium: vs. England in Kaliningrad, Thursday, 2 p.m.
Tunisia: vs. Panama in Saransk, Thursday, 2 p.m.
Tunisia scores in stoppage time
Despite Belgium’s significant lead heading into the final moments of the game, Tunisia’s Wahbi Khazri scores with an assist from Hamdi Nagguez just before the whistle.
Belgium continues scoring until the end
In the 90th minute of the game, Belgium’s Michy Batshuayi, who has taken five shots since he came into the game for Eden Hazard, scores from the center of the box to extend Belgium’s lead even further.
Youri Tielemans comes in
In the 86th minute, Belgium’s Youri Tielemans, a 21-year-old, makes his major tournament debut, replacing Dries Mertens.
Hazard’s day is done
Up by three goals, Belgium takes Eden Hazard out of the game in the 68th minute. Like teammate Romelu Lukaku, Hazard scored twice in this game. Michy Batshuayi comes onto the field in Hazard’s place.
Lukaku leaves game
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, who scored twice in the first half, exits the game and Marouane Fellaini comes in. Lukaku was walking with a slight limp as he headed to the sideline.
With back-to-back two-goal games, Lukaku became the first player to record consecutive games with multiple goals at the World Cup since Argentina’s Diego Maradona in 1986, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Another goal for Belgium
Belgium starts the second half by scoring yet another goal. Eden Hazard got in front of Tunisia’s goalkeeper in the box and sent the ball straight into the middle of the net. That’s Hazard second goal of the day. Belgium leads 4-1.
Halftime: Belgium 3, Tunisia 1
After a wild first half, Belgium leads Tunisia and is on its way to nearly securing a spot in the knockout stage. The half started with three goals in 20 minutes and ended with another one in stoppage time. Two of Belgium’s goals came from Romelu Lukaku, a striker for Manchester United and Belgium’s all-time leading goal scorer. Meanwhile, Tunisia lost two players due to injury.
Belgium, which had gone seven straight World Cup games without scoring in the first half, attacked throughout the first 45 minutes. The Red Devils took 10 shots, seven of which were on goal, against Tunisia goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha, who started in place of injured goalkeeper Mouez Hassen.
Belgium stretches its lead
During first half stoppage time, just before the whistle, Romelu Lukaku scores his second goal of the day, making this his second straight two-goal game. Belgium extends its lead to 3-1, and Lukaku is now tied with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Golden Boot, which goes to the player with the most goals in the World Cup.
Just a few minutes before halftime, Tunisia’s Syam Ben Youssef has been taken off the field on a stretcher. Yohan Benalouane comes in for Ben Youssef. This is now the third first-half injury substitution Tunisia has made in its first two matches.
Early scoring frenzy
Belgium and Tunisia combined for three early goals, marking the first time since 2006 that many goals have been scored in the first 20 minutes of a World Cup game, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Dylan Bronn out
Just after scoring his first international goal, Tunisia’s Dylan Bronn leaves the game with an injury, which appeared to be to his left lower leg. Hamdi Nagguez takes Bronn’s place in the 24th minute. It’s the second straight match Tunisia has been forced to make an early injury substitution.
Tunisia responds fast
After Belgium seemed poised to run away with the game, Tunisia’s Saif-Eddine Khaoui earns a free kick and Dylan Bronn heads the ball from the center of the box into the bottom right of the net. Wahbi Khazri picks up the assist off a wonderful service. It’s a shocking response from Tunisia.
Belgium pouring it on
Belgium continues to take shots, and Romelu Lukaku’s attempt in space sails past Farouk Ben Mustapha to make this a 2-0 early lead for Belgium in the 16th minute. That’s Lukaku’s third goal in Belgium’s first two matches of this World Cup. He was sprung free after a Tunisia turnover near midfield.
Six minutes into the game, Belgium’s Eden Hazard draws a foul just inside the penalty area, a call confirmed by VAR. On the penalty kick, Hazard sends the ball into the left of the net, while goalkeeper Farouk Ben Mustapha stayed in the middle. Belgium is attacking early, and it has already paid off. The Red Devils hadn’t scored a goal in the first half of their last seven World Cup games.
Starting lineups announced
Belgium keeps the same lineup from its opener against Panama, while Tunisia makes two changes. Farouk Ben Mustapha, who played most of the game against England, will start in place of injured goalkeeper Mouez Hassen, and Saîf-Eddine Khaoui will take the spot of Naim Sliti.
In its five World Cup showings, Tunisia has never made it out of the group stage, and a loss against Belgium would make it difficult for the Eagles of Carthage to advance for the first time. Tunisia will be without goalkeeper Mouez Hassen, who left the opener against England with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, Belgium could secure a spot in the knockout stage if it beats Tunisia and England defeats Panama. Even though Belgium won its opener, 3-0, the team was unable to score in the first half against a Panama team making its World Cup debut.
- Last showing in the World Cup: Quarterfinals, 2014.
- Best finish: Fourth place, 1986.
- Notable: In 2014, Belgium finished the group stage with three wins. With victories over Tunisia and England, Belgium could do the same this year.
- FIFA world ranking: 3. ELO world ranking: 7.
- Last showing in the World Cup: Group stage, 2006.
- Best finish: Group stage, 2006, 2002, 1998, 1978.
- Notable: Tunisia has not won a World Cup game since 1978 when it defeated Mexico, 3-1, in its first World Cup match.
- FIFA world ranking: 21. ELO world ranking: 48.
— Emily Giambalvo
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