Martinez happy to see Belgium avoid injuries against physical Panama

Roberto Martinez was relieved after Belgium came through their Group G opener against Panama without key players such as Eden Hazard suffering injuries.

Hazard appeared to be singled out by Panama, who had five players booked on their World Cup bow, with the Chelsea star limping during the first half after a series of hefty challenges.

Despite being held at the interval Belgium found another gear after the restart, Dries Mertens breaking the deadlock with a wonderful volley before Romelu Lukaku added a quickfire brace to secure a 3-0 success.

Hazard shrugged off his apparent knock by being heavily involved in both Lukaku goals, with Martinez glad the stand-in captain – wearing the armband in the absence of the injured Vincent Kompany – was unscathed.

“You can see that the yellow cards were mounting on the opposition during the game but it is a worry that in any of these tackles you could really get hurt,” Martinez told a post-match news conference.

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“It doesn’t worry me that it’s a way of trying to stop [Hazard]. They are allowed to prepare in the way they can, it’s part of the rules but it is a risk of getting sent off.

“My worry is one of those tackles could mean we lose the opportunity to enjoy a player of the quality of Eden Hazard. And that doesn’t just go for Eden, it’s for any player that has the natural ability to get on the ball and take players on. I hope we got lucky in that respect.”

Martinez accepted his side – unbeaten in qualifying and the first European nation to book a spot at Russia 2018 – were not at their best during a flat first-half display.

But the coach felt Panama deserved praise for their stubborn defensive resistance, although Hernan Dario Gomez’s men notably tired following the break.

“Delighted – it’s exactly what we expected. There are no easy games,” Martinez said. “In the first half we started well for 10 to 15 minutes but they defended well with their defensive structure and we became a little frustrated in some situations where we would normally find an extra pass.

Romelu Lukaku Belgium Panama World Cup 2018

“We got a little anxious but I was delighted with how we reacted in those moments. You have to defend well and we saw that as a team. For me, that was pleasing at half-time, everyone was committed to keep a clean sheet. In the second half, it was down to finding some composure in front of goal.

“That first goal was going to be essential, in some games it is a mental blow for one team and gives you breathing space. From that point we were more ourselves, more in control and kept a very good clean sheet.

“We saw Thibaut Courtois make two good saves in one-on-one situations. For me, as a coach, we could not be prouder of our team. Everyone showed they are ready to help.

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“We didn’t want to win it in the first five minutes, in the World Cup we understand that we need to play for 90 minutes. We need to be very aware in every game that if you don’t score you must be prepared to work hard and to go through periods where the opposition test you.

“It was a moment to show maturity, togetherness and composure, we know we have individual talent and they give us the moments we saw, but as a team we need to be able to react in a way that allows you to make a clean sheet.

“I don’t want to take credit from Panama, they gave an incredible amount of effort and it was difficult to maintain it for longer than 60 minutes, but they deserve real credit for what they did in the first half. What we did in the second half, playing for 90 minutes, my players deserve huge credit.”

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