MOSCOW: Individual brilliance broke Panama’s resistance on Monday, but for Belgium coach Roberto Martínez, the 3-0 win was a victory for a new sense of team solidarity as his squad eyes World Cup glory.
Dries Mertens’ spectacular volley two minutes after the break was vital to settle nerves and frustration as Belgium spent a seventh successive World Cup opener with nothing on the board at halftime.
“It gives you a lot of breathing space,” Martínez told reporters. “I felt from that point on we were more ourselves, we were more in control.”
A double from Romelu Lukaku, ably assisted by Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, finished off the Central Americans in their first game at the World Cup.
But Martínez, hired two years ago to end a record of underachievement for a “golden generation” of Red Devils, was as keen to stress his front line’s commitment to getting back in defense.
“There are no easy games,” he said, giving credit for their defensive composure to a Panama side who will next face England and Tunisia.
“We just got a little bit anxious, but I was delighted by the way we defended,” he added.
“You couldn’t be prouder that they performed as a team and everyone showed that he’s ready to help,” said the Spaniard, who has brought to the star-studded Belgian set-up the kind of man-management ideas he used to get the best out of more modest resources at Everton and Wigan Athletic in the Premier League.
“It was a moment to show maturity, it was a moment to show composure and real togetherness,” he said of the halftime break when Jaime Penedo’s clean sheet for Panama was testing nerves.
“I was very happy with the commitment of every single player,” he said.
“We need to grow. We grew in the second half and now we have to take it to the next game and grow into that.”
Tunisia on Saturday and England next Thursday will be very different propositions, he said.
Having stuck determinedly during his campaign with a three-man back line, bringing in Dedryck Boyata on Monday for the injured Vincent Kompany, Martínez shifted to four at the back near the end and would do so again.
“It’s important to be flexible,” he said. “If you are predictable, the opposition can work with that.”