Belgium looks to shut down Tunisia quickly at World Cup

Belgium players celebrate after Romelo Lukaku scored their side's second goal as Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, top, picks the ball inside the goal during the group G match between Belgium and Panama at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Monday, June 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

MOSCOW (AP) Belgium’s ambitions at the World Cup lie beyond the group stage, so the team’s players just want to get through to the knockout round as quickly and easily as possible.

The next step in that plan is to beat Tunisia on Saturday.

”We have to be concentrated on our game, because with our strengths we don’t have to wonder about how Tunisia will want to play,” Belgium defender Thomas Meunier said Thursday. ”We want to do everything to finish the game as soon as we can.”

A win for the Belgians at Spartak Stadium would put them on the verge of qualifying from Group G. A win for England over Panama a day later would be confirmation.

Belgium started slowly on Monday against a defensive Panama side mostly concerned with avoiding a big loss in its World Cup debut – even coach Hernan Gomez said he was satisfied with the 3-0 loss because ”it should have been worse.”

Tunisia is a step up in quality from Panama, but its attacking ability was hobbled by the injury which stopped creative forward Youssef Msakni from coming to Russia for his country’s first World Cup appearance since 2006.

BEAUTIFUL GOALS

In a World Cup full of set-pieces, own-goals and penalties, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was content with the elegant way Belgium beat Panama.

All three goals came from open play, with Dries Mertens scoring a volley before Romelu Lukaku headed in a pass from the outside of Kevin De Bruyne’s foot and then chipped the goalkeeper.

”The hardest thing in football is to score goals and they were beautiful goals from open play,” Martinez said Wednesday. ”You should not look for perfection. We need to improve, of course. We want to improve.

”I think the three games in the group stage, it was always for us to improve in a mental way, in a technical way, in a tactical way.”

FORTY-YEAR WAIT

Anything but a win will leave the Tunisians with little or no chance of qualifying for the knockout stage, but history isn’t on their side.

Four decades and 12 World Cup games have come and gone since Tunisia’s last win, a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978. That win made history because until then no African team had ever won on soccer’s biggest stage.

BELGIUM’S TIME?

With Brazil, Germany and Argentina all failing to win their opening games in Russia, some Belgium fans feel it could be their time.

The team is trying to keep its feet on the ground, aware that Panama was one of the weakest opponents in the competition. Meunier said he is confident that the World Cup’s historically dominant teams will recover their form.

”The first game is always very special because the little teams are very motivated and want to give everything on the pitch,” he said. ”But I do think that in the following days, there will not be too much surprises in groups. I’m convinced that the big teams will go through maybe with some difficulties, but they will go through.”

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James Ellingworth is at www.twitter.com/jellingworth