On Saturday, the departure of Lukaku and Hazard didn’t even disrupt Belgium’s attacking flow. Instead, with its understudies getting immediately involved, Belgium showed that it may have the necessary depth on its roster to go deep into the tournament. In particular, Hazard’s replacement, Michy Batshuayi, had a half-dozen chances to score before he finally came up with Belgium’s fifth, and final, goal.
“We looked well balanced and then the individuals will show the talent,” Belgium Coach Roberto Martínez said. “There’s no question of us being able to score goals, but it’s about getting the balance and the right attitude.”
Blessed with an abundance of talent, this so-called golden generation of Belgium soccer was relentless in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, putting 43 goals past its rivals while dropping just two of the 30 points that were available.
With its two one-sided victories, Belgium has all but clinched a spot in the round of 16, where tougher tests are sure to await. First comes Belgium’s third game of group play — against England on Thursday in Kaliningrad — and then, presumably, the knockout campaign, a phase of World Cup play that has long been a graveyard for talented Belgian teams in the past.
That unhappy group includes the 2016 Belgian squad that was tagged as a potential winner of the European Championship but was eliminated by a rank outsider, Wales, in the quarterfinals.
Germany demonstrated in the 2014 World Cup that it takes a full roster, and not just a handful of world-class players, to secure a championship. Germany’s coach, Joachim Löw, made changes to his lineup throughout that tournament without it affecting his team’s march to the title.
Perhaps more out of necessity than design, Belgium will now have to demonstrate it possesses the same ability to use its depth, starting with the game against England. Martínez announced after Saturday’s game that there would be “major changes” for that match, with both Hazard and Lukaku perhaps being rested, having both picked up minor injuries.
Both Belgium and England will be assured of advancing if England beats Panama on Sunday, which would make the game on Thursday the one that will decide the group winner.
Because finishing first in the group may not necessarily provide an easier path through the rest of the tournament, Thursday’s game could have a subdued dynamic if both teams are already assured of advancing. Still, Martínez maintained that Belgium, no matter what, would play to win that game, even if key players do sit out.
“Football has a strange knack of punishing you when you don’t treat it in a professional manner,” he said.
For much of Saturday’s match, which was played at Spartak Stadium, Belgium’s full range of skills was on view. There was the technical prowess of Hazard, De Bruyne and others, which was supplemented by the power and pace of the likes of Lukaku and central defender Dedryck Boyata, who, with one thunderous first-half tackle, seemed to blunt Tunisia’s intent to mount a full comeback after it halved Belgium’s early two-goal lead.
It was Hazard who had given Belgium the lead with a sixth-minute penalty kick after he had been felled by a clumsy tackle that was the inevitable conclusion of Tunisia’s panicked defending. Lukaku added his first goal after racing clear to put the finishing touches to a fine pass, before doing the same right before halftime after combining with defender Thomas Meunier.
His two goals give him four for the tournament, tying him, for now, with Ronaldo as the tournament’s top scorer.
Tunisia’s coach, Nabil Maaloul, who was overcome with emotion during the playing of Tunisia’s national anthem before the game, cut a chastened figure afterward. He said teams like his were a long way behind those like Belgium when it came to player development, blaming training methods in part for the obvious gap in quality.
“It will take two more generations to recover levels of performance — in terms of fitness and physical strength we are far, far behind,” he said.
As the game moved toward its conclusion on Saturday, it lost all of soccer’s normal precautions, with Belgium relentlessly going forward despite its victory assured.
Batshuayi had already contrived to hit the crossbar with the Tunisia goal at his mercy before he finally scored with a deft finish into the corner of the net. Wahbi Khazri then added a consolation strike for Tunisia that was met with robust cheers by the massive contingent of Tunisian supporters that had traveled to Russia. Still, they knew the better team had won.
After the final whistle, Belgium’s players sauntered toward their bank of supporters. They lined up holding hands and, like a theater company, bowed in unison three times, an apt conclusion to what had been a master class of attacking soccer.
Martínez insisted there was a lot more to come.
“The credit we deserved is that we took the opportunities well,” he said. “But I don’t think we are the finished article. We have a lot to improve upon.”
Here’s how Belgium defeated Tunisia:
92: GOAL! Tunisia
A final twist in the tale as Tunisia gets a consolation! Khazri gets the hard-earned goal and it’s 5-2.
90: GOAL!, 5-1 Belgium
All right Batshuayi, good for you. That’s 5-1 Belgium as a chip from Carrasco finds him unmarked, and he converts the goal this time.
82’: Batshuayi Can’t Finish
Carrasco’s shot is saved by Mustapha, but he spills it. Batshuayi with a point-blank shot, and it’s off the crossbar. Not great finishing by Batshuayi in the last few minutes.
Then, Batshuayi from eight feet away … right to the keeper and saved! If Lukaku were still in he might have two or three more for Belgium.
77’: Almost 5 for Belgium!
Substitute striker Batshuayi is through on the keeper Mustapha. He jukes around him and has an open net! But he kicks it with his ankle and it goes toward goal at a slow enough rate that defender Meriah has enough time to clear it off the line!
71’: Now Pace Is Slowing
Maybe it’s the rain, maybe it’s the score, maybe it’s exhaustion. But the pace of the game is finally slowing. That doesn’t mean we won’t be getting another goal though.
68’: Still Action as More Subs Enter
A bit of rain coming down on the game. It doesn’t seem to have slowed the teams down. Belgium takes out its other two-goal scorer, Eden Hazard, subbing in Michy Batshuayi. You can’t blame Belgium for looking ahead with a 4-1 lead.
63’: Five Goals Anyone?
Carrasco’s shot from just outside the box goes high and wide. Meanwhile, Tunisia is still gamely attacking to try to get one back.
61’: Belgium Pulls Lukaku
That’s going to be it for goal machine Romelu Lukaku. Most likely a smart precautionary move. Marouane Felliani checks in, which should give Belgium a more defensive look. Not that it needs any more goals.
52’: GOAL! 4-1!
Hazard gets behind the defense, finesses it past the charging keeper, and has an empty net to shoot into.
50’: Tunisia Keeps Attacking, for Better or Worse
Khazri slides for a cross with no one between him and the goalkeeper. But he pops it up. Tunisia hasn’t slowed its attacking style. That could mean another goal at one end or the other.
49’: Lukaku and Ronaldo
With four goals, Romelu Lukaku is now tied with Cristiano Ronaldo as the tournament’s leading scorer. Just 25, he is already Belgium’s all-time leading scorer as well.
45’: Second Half Kickoff
As Belgium came out of the tunnel, several of its players were in intense discussions with Arsenal (and Red Bulls) legend Thierry Henry. He’s an assistant coach of the team.
A wild half. Four goals, two forced substitutions. Points to Tunisia for pulling back a goal at 2-0. But its attacks left it continually open at the back.
48’: GOAL! Belgium Takes 3-1 Lead
Lukaku gets No. 2 of the game and No. 4 of the tournament! Hazard laid it off with a touch-pass, Lukaku timed his run to beat the defense, and it was between him and the keeper. 3-1 Belgium.
47’: Chance for Belgium Before the Half
De Bruyne crosses to a racing Lukaku, but it’s two feet too far in front or that might have been another goal.
42’: Another Tunisian Player Carried Off
The stretcher is out for a second Tunisia player. Syam Ben Youssef is out, Yohan Benalouane will come in for him.
39’: Pace Slowing Some
Youssef tries a speculative shot, which goes well wide. The pace is at last slowing down a little.
34’: Belgium Keeps Pressure On
Keeper Mustapha handles an easy cross, then spills it! But he quickly pounces on it again.
33’: Tunisia’s Defense Remains Shaky
Curling shot by Khazri from distance draws a save. Tunisia’s offensive response to falling down 2-0 has been fantastic. They still look a little shaky in defense.
31’: Teams Trading Chances
Sassi of Tunisia gets the ball at the half moon, but fires wide. Action aplenty in this game so far.
29’: More Belgian Chances
Lukaku in space, and he decides to pass it back to the trailing Axel Witsel. But Witsel launches it over the bar. Belgium looks like scoring again.
27’: Belgium Threatening Again
Tunisia pressure leads to a Belgium break. Lukaku gets the ball open again on the run! But this time his first touch is too strong and it gets away from him.
23’: Tunisia Loses Bronn
Bronn of Tunisia is carried off on a stretcher. Possibly a knee injury. He’ll have to be subbed. Hamdi Nagguez checks in.
22’: Shaky Defending From Tunisia
Alderweireld is the latest to get a shot off with no defenders in attendance. It goes wide.
20’: Chance for Belgium
Mertens gets the ball unmarked in the box and fires point blank. Keeper Mustapha is there though.
18’: GOAL! Tunisia Gets One Back
Amazing. Tunisia pulls one back. Khazri with the long free kick and Bronn gets a head to it.
16’: GOAL! Belgium 2-0.
Mertens breaks, feeds Lukaku, and he slots it home. Easy-peasy. This could get ugly. That’s goal No. 3 is this World Cup for Lukaku.
14’: Tunisia Losing Its Cool
Tunisian players are angry they didn’t get a penalty of their own when Khazri went down in the area. Sassi gets a yellow card for dissent. Not a good sign that Tunisia is aggrieved less than 15 minutes into the game.
10’: Chance for Tunisia
A chip-in to Anice Badri as Tunisia tries to answer. Keeper Courtois gets there first.
6’: GOAL BELGIUM!
Hazard takes the penalty. Right in the corner; the keeper didn’t move. 1-0 Belgium.
Eden Hazard goes down hard. Is it a penalty? Youssef the guilty party. It is a penalty. Disastrous start for Tunisia!
3’: Belgium Attack
Lukaku of Belgium outraces his defender and gets top the ball first in the box. But keeper Mustapha barely beats him to it.
Belgium in yellow, Tunisia in red. The American referee Jair Marrufo will take charge of today’s game.
Goalkeeper: 1 Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea)
Defenders: 2 Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham); 20 Dedryck Boyata (Celtic); 5 Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham); 15 Thomas Meunier (Paris St Germain)
Midfielders: 11 Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang); 7 Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City); 10 Eden Hazard (Chelsea); 6 Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)
Forwards: 9 Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United); 14 Dries Mertens (Napoli)
Goalkeeper: 1 Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab)
Defenders: 2 Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa); 11 Dylan Bronn (Gent); 12 Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly); 4 Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien)
Midfielders: 10 Wahbi Khazri (Sunderland); 9 Anice Badri (Esperance); 13 Ferjani Sassi (Al Nasr); 17 Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier)
Forwards: 7 Saif Eddine Khaoui (Marseille); 8 Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al Ettifaq)
Belgium vs. Tunisia Top Story Lines
• Belgium was one of the more impressive teams in its opener, putting Panama to the sword, 3-0.
• Dries Mertens broke a deadlock early in the second half, then Romelu Lukaku added two more goals.
• What The Times said: “Belgium became the first of the World Cup favorites to put in a truly dominating performance.”
• In 2014, Belgium was one of four teams to get 9 points out of 9 in the opening round. It lost in the quarterfinals to Argentina however.
• Tunisia lost, 2-1, to England on a late goal. Tunisia scored on a penalty by Ferjani Sassi.
• Tunisia got just 1 point in each of its last three World Cups, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. It hasn’t won since it beat Mexico in 1978.
• Top Belgian defender Vincent Kompany of Manchester City is still out with a groin injury, as is defender Thomas Vermaelen with a hamstring.
• First choice keeper Mouez Hassen of Tunisia, subbed out of the England game after 15 minutes, is out.
• Belgium is the comfortable favorite: Tunisia is 11-1 to win.