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.
|Slater charged, set to miss Grand Final|
|Rose not changing approach alongside Woods|
|Woods ready to ´hang in there´ at East Lake|
|Shaqiri´s time will come at Liverpool – Klopp|
|Richarlison: I used to copy some of Neymar´s haircuts|
|Brady says Gordon is ´really eager to get in there´ despite limited practice|
|NBA changes clock-reset, ´clear path´ foul rules|
|Tigers´ Martinez will play final game on Saturday before retiring|
|Sanchez to start for Man United – Mourinho|
|Speight saves Ulster in thrilling Cheetahs draw|
|Simmonds at the double as Chiefs stay perfect|
|Woods, Rose share Tour Championship lead|
|Ice-cool Shoaib denies Afghanistan in final over|
|CAF Champions League Review: Wydad Casablanca out as TP Mazembe pay penalty|
|Eden inspires rout as Castleford book Wigan semi-final|
|Thiem & Wawrinka reach St. Petersburg semi-finals|
|No change to Aguero selection despite new contract, warns Guardiola|
|Woods and Rose share Tour Championship lead|
|Wigan Athletic 1 Bristol City 0: Three on the trot for improving Latics|
|Josh Rosen will play ´when time is right,´ Cardinals GM says|
|Eagles RBs Ajayi & Sproles out Sunday v Colts|
|Ronaldo looking forward after Champions League red card - Alex Sandro|
|Rangers fire manager Jeff Banister after four seasons|
|Inter captain Icardi can improve - Spalletti|
|Jadeja and Rohit shine as India maintain 100 per cent record|
|Fisher shares lead in Vilamoura after record-breaking 59|
|Messi the best I´ve seen - Lamela|
|Silva demands end to Gomes ´rumours´ and targets early October return|
|Milner over Pogba, says Souness|
|Brazil call up Malcom, drop Thiago Silva and Willian|
|Denly thought Test chance may never come|
|Benitez tells FA to examine Zaha red card comments|
|Bjorn unsure of future after Ryder Cup|
|Tebas still optimistic over Girona-Barcelona in Miami despite RFEF setback|
|Emery promises more chances for frustrated Leno|
|Cahill considering Chelsea departure in January|
|Kaepernick to receive Harvard´s highest honour in African, African-American studies|
|Defending champion Ostapenko dumped out of Korea Open|
|Mourinho is an inspiration - Nuno|
|Witty Wilson ´delighted´ to be praised for Fisher heroics while sitting on couch|
|Burns, Denly and Stone in England squad for Sri Lanka Tests|
|Aspas reveals interest from Real Madrid, Atletico|
|Arsenal´s Mkhitaryan a doubt for Everton match|
|Klopp demands Liverpool ´stay angry´ against Southampton|
|Long-serving Tabarez signs four-year Uruguay extension|
|Injured Mendy ruled out of Cardiff trip|
|Douglas Costa out up to a month with ankle & thigh injuries|
|Slater shrugs off Feki hit amid Grand Final suspension concerns|
|Crisis? What crisis? Klopp unconcerned by Salah form|
|I didn´t convince him, he decided for himself - Guardiola says thanks to Aguero|
|Leno frustrated by Arsenal bench role|
|Joshua almost 2st heavier than Povetkin for Wembley bout|
|From salvation to the record books - Fisher revels in European Tour´s first 59|
|Lahm says Germany best for Euro 2024 as UEFA publishes report|
|Lopetegui backs Modric over Ronaldo for individual prizes|
|Goretzka to start against former club Schalke, confirms Kovac|
|Fisher shoots first 59 in European Tour history|
|Simeone defends Ronaldo after controversial Champions League red|
|Slater sees Storm into Grand Final, awaits fate over ´shoulder charge´|
|Hogg to miss Scotland´s November Tests following ankle surgery|
|Osaka through as Azarenka and Garcia crash out|
|Burgess weighing up legal options after being cleared in Rabbitohs investigation|
|Uncapped Cottrell and Gordon named in Wallabies squad|
|He´s done fantastic work - Mourinho hails Wolves boss Nuno|
|Joshua v Povetkin: No need for fireworks on AJ´s Wembley return|
|Six titles, 204 goals - Aguero´s incredible City career in Opta stats|
|Read to miss Argentina clash, Ioane brothers sign new deals|
|Pedro allays injury fears after Europa League clash|
|Dilly dilly to all the Cleveland fans! Mayfield promises further Browns success|
|Manchester United ´hell´ left Zaha depressed|