Cyprus got off to a losing start in their World Cup Group H opener, eventually succumbing to a 0-3 defeat against group favourites Belgium at the GSP Stadium on Tuesday night.
The hosts put in a spirited performance but the riches of talents throughout the Belgian side eventually resulted in a comfortable day’s work for the visitors, though young goalkeeper Constantinos Panagi caught the eye.
A respectable European Championship qualifying campaign meant there were few changes to the Cyprus squad, though there were some surprises in Christakis Christoforou’s first official starting eleven.
Panagi was handed just his second cap while 18-year-old Juventus starlet Grigoris Kastanos made his first ever international start.
Cyprus managed to keep Belgium out for 86 minutes in the same fixture exactly a year ago, but the deadlock was broken a lot sooner this time around.
On 13 minutes, a low drilled shot from Thomas Meunier on the edge of the box was tipped superbly onto the cross bar by Panagi but the rebound fell kindly to Romelu Lukaku who stooped to head home from six yards.
Some fine trickery followed by a super cross from Giorgos Efrem on the left hand side almost led to an immediate equaliser from Cyprus, but Pieros Sotiriou could not direct his towards goal.
On 38 minutes, Eden Hazard turned his defender in the box before playing a pass towards Lukaku, but Panagi did well to push the ball away. The danger was not over, however, as Meunier broke through, but his cross for Lukaku was off target.
Cyprus were almost level two minutes before the break when a deflected free-kick fell to Efrem who struck with venom and accuracy, but was denied by Thibaut Courtois.
The second half kicked off with Dossa Junior having a half-hearted penalty claim turned down, but while the Cypriot defender was complaining, the Belgians broke quickly with Lukaku inches away from picking out Hazard for an easy second.
Dossa Junior then rifled a free-kick over the Belgian wall just shy of the hour mark, going just wide of Courtois’ far post.
But just when it seemed as though Belgium had faded out of the game, a similar goal to the first would put the game beyond Cyprus’ reach. De Bruyne played in Yannick Ferreira Carrasco on the left wing, who then struck across goal which Panagi tipped to his left but again, Lukaku was there to pounce from close range for 0-2.
On 81 minutes, De Bruyne unleashed a low left-footed drive from the edge of the box which was tipped wide by Panagi but, again, the keeper was unfortunate to see his save fall to the feet of an opponent.
Hazard then unselfishly squared the ball for Carrasco for 0-3.
The biggest positive of the night was Panagi’s impressive display. Belgium were handed the chance to make it four late on from the penalty spot, but substitute Michy Batshuayi saw his spot kick denied by the young keeper.
Cyprus gave a decent account of themselves, but the quality of the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne eventually made the telling difference.
The next challenge for Christoforou’s men comes on October10, when they take on Greece away from home in the second qualifier of the campaign.
Results in the night’s other matches were:
Faroe Islands 0
Bosnia and Herzegovina 5