Roberto Martinez knew what was coming.
He stressed the importance of patience from his World Cup contenders. The Belgium boss wanted a mature performance against a Panama side he refused to underestimate.
Panama – the debutants with nothing to lose and all to gain on a historic day after coach Hernan Dario Gomez playfully promised to drink two bottles of vodka if the newcomers somehow managed to make it out of Group G.
And it unfolded just as Martinez predicted, despite Romelu Lukaku's quickfire brace and a mesmerising volley from Dries Mertens giving the appearance of a comfortable 3-0 win in Sochi on Monday.
It was frustrating and physical, but the star-studded Red Devils showed the calmness and maturity needed to move past the quarter-finals of a major tournament having reached that stage at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.
Eden Hazard bore the brunt of Panama's physicality – the captain, while lively in the closing 45 minutes, taken out of the game before the interval.
Kevin De Bruyne's impact was minimal, Lukaku was isolated and Jan Vertonghen was seen gesturing unhappily towards his team-mates.
Panama, who dramatically denied the Unites States from qualifying for Russia, were value for money – their every move approved by a passionate and deafening contingent whose support never waned.
Doubts emerged after a goalless first half, but Belgium answered such concerns swiftly.
A moment of magic from Mertens finally unshackled Belgium, his show-stopping volley two minutes into the second period easing the nerves.
20 - Belgium are unbeaten in their last 20 matches (W15 D5), their last loss came in Sept 2016 vs. Spain (0-2). Contenders. pic.twitter.com/jFPRkPYCBm— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 18, 2018
Thibaut Courtois came to the rescue to keep Belgium ahead and while Panama remained a threat – undaunted by the occasion – the quality of the Red Devils showed.
Belgium's superstars came to the fore, the outside of De Bruyne's boot picking out Lukaku. Hazard then teed up the Manchester United striker six minutes after.
There were areas of concern for Belgium – now 20 games unbeaten – particularly in defence, but with Vincent Kompany making fast progress in his return from injury, this could be the year the country's golden generation finally fulfil their potential.
|Greipel, Groenewegen and Gaviria latest sprinters to abandon Tour de France|
|Luis Enrique hopeful over Pique as he plots a Spanish evolution|
|I had a brain fart - Spieth disappointed with missed opportunity|
|I´ve sacrificed too much to quit, says injury-plagued Rossi|
|Klopp rejects Henderson´s plea to return early to Liverpool training|
|Open champion Spieth loses ground in scrappy finish|
|Alexis Sanchez hints visa issue sorted as United States trip beckons|
|Kovac an admirer of Pavard, expects James to stay|
|Dzeko happy at Roma and eyeing silverware|
|Eels win basement battle with Bulldogs|
|Kluivert to follow Totti´s example after taking ´big step´ with Roma|
|Kisner hopes to return Claret Jug favour to Spieth|
|FIBA bans 13 players & two coaches over Philippines-Australia brawl|
|Spieth and Rahm in the mix as Kisner sets the target|
|Monchi insists Roma remain ambitious as Liverpool close in on Alisson|
|Cavendish thanks ´race that shaped career & heart´ after cruel Tour exit|
|No Trent Bridge Ashes Test as England confirm schedule|
|Ajax tell Barcelona not even ´insane´ money will buy De Ligt, De Jong|
|Hamilton agrees two-year Mercedes extension|
|Uran withdraws from Tour after failing to shake off injuries|
|Spieth tees off Open defence|
|Zidane has shown no will to coach France, insists FFF president|
|Risking the curse - Steelers star Brown lands on Madden 19 cover|
|Pogba silenced his critics with World Cup displays – Ibrahimovic|
|Warburton overwhelmed by support following retirement|
|Wilshere excited by tactics of Wenger-like Pellegrini|
|Deschamps never considered France exit prior to World Cup win|
|Persepolis eye Champions League after Iran impress at World Cup|
|Sandy Lyle gets The Open underway at Carnoustie|
|Roosters sign England international Hall|
|Ovechkin, Kim earn major honours at ESPY Awards|
|Owens not ´actively seeking´ to play in NFL again|
|Argentina need Messi – Tevez urges Lionel not to retire|
|Minnesota United 2 New England Revolution 1: Ramirez, Quintero sink stuttering visitors|
|Shaw: I want to be first name on Man United teamsheet|
|Manny Machado dealt to Dodgers|
|Pjanic hails Ronaldo arrival but refuses to confirm Juve future|
|Perotti: Roma can cope without Liverpool-bound Alisson|
|Klopp hopes Liverpool building towards title tilt|
|Karlovic exits as four seeds bow out in Newport|
|Angels clap back at Manfred´s marketing comments on Trout|
|Titans DL Casey will still protest despite new anthem policy|
|Popovich on Leonard trade: It´s time to move on|
|Zola returns to Chelsea as Sarri´s assistant|
|Anthony Joshua targets ´dream´ fight in Texas|
|Celtic 3 Alashkert 0 (6-0 agg): Dembele hits brace before injury worry|
|Schwartzman stumbles but Spanish duo reach last eight at Swedish Open|
|Top seeds progress in Bucharest as Larsson conquers Kung|
|Perez promises ´incredible´ signings at Real Madrid|
|Liverpool need a top goalkeeper - Souness|
|It was just an absolute car crash - Root regrets bat-drop celebration|
|Mourinho´s pre-season fears mount with Sanchez sidelined|
|Alisson thanks Roma fans ahead of rumoured Liverpool switch|
|Pogba must understand his World Cup heroics, says Mourinho|
|Odriozola excited by Lopetegui reunion at Real Madrid|
|Revis announces retirement from NFL after 11 seasons|
|The Open 2018 diary: Rahm´s saving Grace, Rory´s going grey|
|Kawhi Leonard traded to Raptors as DeMar DeRozan heads to Spurs|
|Cantona, Rosberg and other surprise retirements after Warburton hangs up his boots|
|No doubting Thomas as he climbs into yellow with stage win|
|Liverpool´s Oxlade-Chamberlain to miss ´vast majority´ of 2018-19|
|Open Championship by far the greatest - Player|
|Sarri wants new central midfielder and hints at Chelsea stay for Cahill|
|Nantes sign former Manchester United full-back Fabio|
|Marcelino rewarded with one-year Valencia extension|
|Warburton retires: Bale leads social media tributes to Welsh great|
|Mistakes do not define me, says Chelsea boss Sarri|
|Saints and Tigers to honour Horne with Twickenham clash|
|I want to keep Hazard, says Sarri|
|Europe must stop American juggernaut at Carnoustie|