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Star studded Belgium expected to cruise past Panama

media Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois during a practice session. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Belgium, quarter-finalists four years ago in Brazil, are expected to waltz past Panama. That Roberto Martinez’s men aren’t considered hot favourites for the title highlights the perennial prejudices of World Cups.

Brazil, Germany and Argentina are promulgated as champions because they have accounted for 11 of the 20 tournaments since 1930.

But the Belgians should not be discounted from ultimate glory on 15 July. They have a team packed with stars from the leading leagues.

Skipper Eden Hazard is the inspiration at Chelsea. Kevin de Bruyne was key to Manchester City’s march to the 2018 English Premier League title and striker Romelu Lukaku was the muscle behind Manchester United’s race to keep last season’s English championship interesting.

Vincent Kompany was Manchester City’s defensive bedrock when he was available to play for Pep Guariola’s side.

Doubts around his participation in the World Cup rose when he limped off the pitch during the warm-up friendly against Portugal on 3 June.

But Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said on the eve of the Panama match that Kompany would remain with the squad even if he was not fit enough to feature in the opening match at the Fischt Stadium in Sochi.

“He’s recovering better than expected,” Martinez said. "Having Vincent Kompany around is very important for the team not only on the pitch.”

Dedryck Boyata is tipped to replace Kompany with veterans Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen spread across the back line.

Hazard and Napoli’s Dries Mertens are expected to operate just in front of a midfield containing the wiles of de Bruyne and the artful running of Axel Witsel formerly of the parish of Zenit St Petersburg before moving last year to Tianjin Quanjian in the Chinese Super League.

Hernan Gomez, the coach of Panama does not possess such resources. The main strike threat is 37-year-old Blas Perez who turns out of the Guatamalan outfit Municipal.

Midfielders such as Jose Luis Rodriguez and Armando Cooper play for Gent’s under-21 side and Universidad de Chile respectively. Big things are not expected.

“Look Belgium are an excellent team with a very good coach but in football anything can happen,” said Gomez.

The 62-year-old added: "Iceland sent Croatia to the play-offs in the qualification stage for the World Cup. Iceland got to the last eight in the 2016 European championships as well. They've got a draw with Argentina here too.”

He added: “It’s true that the Argentina squad isn't at the same level as Belgium right now. But the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn't as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama."

The former coach of the national teams in Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia quipped he would drink two bottles of vodka if his team were to reach the last 16.

However no one, even after downing such quantities, would make such a wager.

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