Two goals apiece from Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku eased Belgium to a 5-2 win over Tunisia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium.
Michy Batshuayi, on loan at Dortmund from Chelsea, added the fifth in the game’s dying minutes, only for Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri to claim a consolation goal in added time.
Ranked third in the world, Belgium will be certain of qualification for the next round if England avoid defeat against Panama on Sunday.
England, however, should be concerned about what they saw from Roberto Martinez’s men here – they were magnificent.
Four-time champions Italy may not have reached the World Cup but there is an Italian making her mark in Russia: the pop singer Gala.
She had a brief run of Eurodance hits in the 1990s but life was breathed back into her back catalogue in 2016 when a Wigan Athletic fan reworked “Freed from Desire” as “Will Grigg’s on Fire”. The rest is football anthem history.
Belgium supporters love the tune and having sung it lustily before the game they were freed from their desire within six minutes of the start when Hazard slotted home from the penalty spot.
He had earned the chance himself after a neat exchange with Lukaku was abruptly halted on the edge of the box. There was some doubt about where the foul started but VAR confirmed the referee’s suspicions about where it ended.
The Red Devils’ lead was doubled 10 minutes later, when Dries Mertens pounced on a heavy touch by defender Yassine Meriah and played a perfectly-weighted pass to Lukaku, who had made Mertens’ job easier with a clever run.
The Manchester United striker’s finish was smart, too – a left-footed strike from the edge of the box.
You thought the worst for Tunisia at this point but within two minutes they were back in it. Khazri – still on Sunderland’s books but perhaps not for much longer – delivered a superb free-kick into the box and Dylan Bronn headed past Thibaut Courtois.
Bronn’s delight quickly turned to pain, though, when he carried off with a twisted knee. He had been the only Belgian-based player on the pitch.
Tunisia would also lose defender Syam Ben Youssef to injury before the break and their hopes disappeared up the tunnel as well when Lukaku scored his second in the third minute of stoppage time. It was his fourth in this tournament and it came from a lovely assist by Thomas Meunier.
Martinez apologised to reporters before the game for making the side boring in terms of off-field story lines but there is nothing dull about their play and six minutes after the restart it was Kevin De Bruyne’s chance to shine.
The Manchester City maestro spotted Hazard dashing forward, reached into his box of tricks and unleashed a perfect, 40-yard pass. Hazard, who is playing more like Ronaldo than Messi in Russia, did the rest, dodging the onrushing Farouk Ben Mustapha and tapping into the empty net.
If this sounds ominous for England, who meet Belgium for what Three Lions fans hope will be the Group G decider on Thursday, it should.
Gareth Southgate’s men were more convincing winners against Tunisia in Volgograd than the 2-1 scoreline suggested but they did not toy with the Eagles of Carthage in the way Belgium did here. Whereas Harry Kane was very much required until stoppage time, Martinez was able to take off Lukaku on the hour and Hazard 10 minutes later.
This gave Batshuayi a chance to add a fifth in the 89th minute. In truth, it could have been his third and he missed another chance a minute later.
And then, just when the Belgian fans had started another rendition of “Freed from Desire”, Khazri got the consolation his efforts deserved.
Sadly for him, Tunisia’s World Cup had been over for some time at this point but Belgium’s looks like it is just getting started.
Stay updated with the latest news, gossip and football stories by following us @Football_P