In 1904, the United States took over a French engineering project, and after a decade, opened one of the most popular conduits for maritime trade in the world — the Panama canal. At Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday, at the mere sight of a set-piece, another thoroughfare was in operation, ever ready to ship in goals — the Panama defence. With England wearing white, and the game being played on grass, the scoreline might have confused sports fans that Wimbledon had come early; instead, it was the occasion of England recording their biggest-ever win at a World Cup, brushing aside an overwhelmed Panama team 6-1. With this comprehensive win, the Three Lions have booked their spot in the Round of 16, and their upcoming tussle against Belgium will decide who gets to top their group.
England made just the one change to their squad that beat Tunisia in the dying moments of their opening encounter — Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek stepping in for Dele Alli, who had picked up a thigh strain in the previous match. Though, the other change — Marcus Rashford for Raheem Sterling — suggested a couple of days ago by assistant manager Steve Holland’s notes, wasn’t enacted.
England got off to a fantastic start in the eighth minute when an unmarked John Stones' header gave them an early 1-0 lead. Fourteen minutes later, they doubled their lead through an emphatic Harry Kane penalty after Jesse Lingard had been fouled in the box. Truth be told, England could have scored one more by that time had Henderson not over-hit his through ball to Kane in the fourteenth minute. Though Panama were up against superior opposition, it didn’t prevent them from indulging in muscular manhandling of their opponents, often leading to disastrous consequences. Very soon, Panama were staring at a rout in the first half itself. The last time England had scored four goals in a World Cup match was in 1966, when they beat West Germany to the title in extra time. This time, they scored five in the first half of the game.This World Cup is special for Panama as it is their maiden appearance at the global football showpiece event. Last time, in the 2014 World Cup qualifying, they had gone out in the CONCACAF fourth round in the most dramatic and heartbreaking fashion possible. In their last match against USA, they led 2-1 in the 90th minute, and had they held on to that result, they would have booked a slot for the playoff against New Zealand by virtue of their fourth-place finish. Instead, they conceded two goals in added time and were eliminated. This time around, they qualified in third place, ahead of more fancied teams such as USA.
The third goal of the game, scored by Jesse Lingard, was the best of the lot. He exchanged passes at the edge of the penalty area with fellow forward Raheem Sterling, took a few steps, and unleashed a curling shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar. Panama's manhandling once again led to their downfall in the last minute of the first half after Harry Kane was tackled to the floor, and the England captain scored another penalty to match Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally in the Golden Boot standings.
The tempo dropped slightly in the second half, understandably, as the game was done and dusted. Panama were playing for pride. All that was left to see was whether Panama could get something to cheer about. Unfortunately, it was England who got one more: Ruben Loftus-Cheek attempted a long range shot in the 62nd minute, but his shot struck Harry Kane on the heel and looped into the back of the net. The Tottenham Hotspurs striker wouldn’t have had an easier day at the office — two penalties and an inadvertent goal. Substitutes Jamie Vardy, Fabian Delph, and Danny Rose had decent outings too as the game limped to a close.
Panama finally found a reason to smile in the final quarter. Avila’s free-kick was met on the half volley by 37-year-old Felipe Baloy, and he scored Panama’s first-ever goal in the World Cup. This goal was met by the loudest cheers in the entire stadium; if someone had just been listening to the cheers, they could have easily mistaken that it must have been the winning goal. Instead, it was a consolation goal against an England team which had put in a good performance.
What do England have to take back after this game which would have undoubtedly boosted their confidence? Even though England bossed overall, the result must be put into perspective. This was Panama’s first-ever World cup finals. Their players ply their trade in USA’s Major League Soccer and eastern European leagues. Apart from Lingard’s peach, everything else came off a set-piece. Panama still threatened the England goal many times: the Barcenas' long-ranger that whizzed past the post, Murillo’s attempt that was blocked by Pickform, among others come to mind. Unfortunately for Panama, poor finishing let them down on most occasions after they got into dangerous positions. Panama’s inexperience showed throughout the match, and they often looked like the team that had scored only once in their last six matches. But better teams will not let England off the hook as easily. Their next game against Belgium should reveal how they would hold up against teams of similar standing.
It will also be interesting to see Southgate’s tactics against Belgium. Will he ring in the changes to check out his squad depth? Or will he prefer a longer run for his first team? Then there is also the matter of the group standings. England have the advantage of knowing the knockout draw for most of the teams (barring Japan’s group). One half is likely to contain more heavyweights; so on paper, it would be better to finish second and get a theoretical advantage to reach the semis. But this is England were are talking about; they have lost to unfancied opposition before. Keep an eye out on the next match for some interesting sideshows as the group stage draws to a close.