KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW: Belgium, slick and quick and displaying all the verve that their talent has long promised, accelerated towards the World Cup knockout round with a 5-2 defeat of Tunisia in the Spartak stadium.
They are not quite there yet and nor are Tunisia definitively out. Both are dependent on forthcoming events between England and Panama.
The Belgians, in the manner of the old newspaper cliché, “kicked off with a rush” and never stopped. Romelu Lukaku and captain Eden Hazard scored two goals each and the fifth went to late substitute Michi Batshuayi who might have scored five all on his own with a little more poise.
Tunisia did not possess the legs or lung capacity to keep up with the pace set by Roberto Martinez’s men though they tried bravely.
French-born Dylan Bronn, who plays his football in Belgium for Gent, gave them early, brief hope with a first-half goal and Wahbi Khazri was still running into second half stoppage time to score with virtually the last kick of the game.
Long before United States referee Jair Marrufo’s final whistle it was clear that the Red Devils were safely through to the second round, whatever the outcome of their last Group G tie against England in Kaliningrad next Thursday.
Belgiun signalled their intent in the fourth minute when Hazard, skipping into the penalty box on the right, was felled by Syam Ben Youssef. Tunisia protested en masse in vain before Hazard coolly despatched the spotkick. Ten minutes later Lukaku converted an assist from Dries Mertens for the second
At this point, just when Belgium appeared poised to run away with the game, so their own central defensive frailties were exposed as Bronn rose to glance home a left-wing free kick from Khazri.
If the Tunisians could have held out until half-time the shape of the game might have changed but they were handicapped by the need for two defensive substitions – one for luckless Bronn, with a knee injury. Belgium, ruthlessly, stepped up the pressure and were duly rewarded.
Lukaku lost control once when going clear and Axel Witsel fired a rocket over the bar before Kevin de Bruyne and Thomas Meunier set up their centre-forward for his fourth goal of the tournament.
Tunisia’s players looked thoroughly depressed at going in 3-1 down and they conceded a killing fourth goal six minutes after the resumption. A long angled cross from Toby Alderweireld was brilliantly killed by Hazard who nicked the ball past keeper Farouk Ben Mustapha with his right foot and then held off two defenders to shoot home with his left.
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, considering this job done, removed Lukaku and Hazard from the action and sent on Marouane Fellaini, Batshuayi and Youri Tielemans to see it through.
They did more than that. Batshuayi had one shot cleared off the line, hit the bar from point-blank range and was brilliantly foiled by Ben Mustapha before finally converting a Tielemans assist. Khazri scored at the other end but it made no difference to the overall outcome: Belgium were almost through and Tunisia were almost out.