PANAMA POUNDED AS ENGLAND PROGRESS
England qualified for the Last 16 with a game to spare, by trouncing Panama 6-1. Ahead 5-0 at the break, captain Harry Kane’s hat-trick helped the team to their biggest major tournament win of all time.
With Dele Alli, shoulder and team-sheet issues fully resolved, Gareth Southgate could fully focus on England’s second group game – against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod. After Belgium comprehensively brushed Tunisia aside 5-2, England knew they could face a pressure-free tie with Belgium if victorious here. Raheem Sterling, after all the speculation, did retain his starting place. Only Ruben Loftus-Cheek came in. It was the expected change. Panama’s starting eleven included four players aged 32 or older.
Jesse Lingard’s first-minute blow to the face was about as exciting as the opening exchanges got. England were looking just a little ponderous. However the first time Kieran Trippier got goalside was to indirectly lead to the Three Lions’ opener. The Tottenham man earned England’s first corner. After some Tunisian-style manhandling of Harry Maguire had been dealt with, Trippier whipped the ball in. When it finally came down, John Stones attacked it with the same aggression that led to England’s first World Cup goal against Tunisia. This time, though, it flew in. The only player not marked by Panama had got England up and running only eight minutes in.
England gave midfielder Aníbal Godoy a free shot, as they struggled for real dominance. They were still searching for it when they added their second. Just minutes after Panama came close again through Édgar Bárcenas, The Three Lions had earned a penalty as Jesse Lingard was upended in front of goal. Harry Kane scored the best penalty of the World Cup so far – no mean feat considering VAR’s plentiful freebees thus far. He lashed the ball high to Jaime Penedo’s right. England were two up.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek picked up England’s only yellow of the game moments later for a something-and-nothing incident. Harsh but insignificant. And after Harry Maguire nodded over from a freekick, England endured there best ten-minute period of the tournament so far. It started in the thirty-sixth minute. Jesse Lingard prodded the ball forward for Raheem Sterling, who turned smartly and played the ball back. Sterling’s return-ball deserved something good, but what it got was a finish to mark it as one of England’s great goals. Lingard took one touch before whipping the ball meanly round his defender, off the crossbar, and into the top-right corner. A twenty-three-yard scorcher.
When training-ground moves come off, they look impressive. But what came next for England was one of the best freekick moves to be found anywhere. It was England’s. Jordan Henderson broke free of Panama’s defensive line to receive a short Trippier freekick. In one touch he looped the ball up and to the right of the box. Harry Kane leapt highest to knock the ball down into an unpopulated six-yard box. There, looking as likely to score for England as he ever has, was Raheem Sterling. He headed the ball straight at a falling Penedo, who could only palm the ball back out to an onrushing Stones. The Manchester City man showed his aerial ability once more, powering the ball into the roof of the net. As Stones celebrated his second goal of the game, Sterling celebrated his second assist of the evening – although FIFA will most likely disagree.
What happened next cemented this as a real purple patch for England. Another Three Lions corner came in, and was met by Maguire. But off the ball, Godoy and Michael Amir Murillo had thrown Kane and Stones to the floor. The fact an England player still won the first header just shows how hard this side have worked over the past three weeks. Referee Gehad Grisha took one look and pointed to the spot. Two fouls from one corner – the right decision. As with the first one, VAR had a check, but Harry Kane was handed a real chance to join Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku at the top of the hunt for the Golden Boot. Kane stepped up and slammed the ball into exactly the same place as his first. The last time you could say the following, The Three Lions were playing in San Marino under Roy Hodgson: it was 5-0 to England at the break.
The second period was never going to have the energy that the first did, and it didn’t. Goalkeeper Penedo was out decisively to halt a Raheem Sterling one-on-one, before England scored their sixth. They say when things are going for you, you’ll know. And it was made blatantly obvious to Harry Kane, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s low shot clipped the skipper’s heel, and rebounded past a beaten Penedo and in. Two penalties and a goal he knew nothing about: Harry Kane is making a name for himself as a world-class poacher. It’s England’s first hat-trick since Jermain Defoe netted three against Bulgaria in 2010. England’s sixth goal had put them in an unlikely situation. They were now ahead of Belgium on goal difference.
Jamie Vardy, Fabian Delph and Danny Rose came on for England. Vardy had a half-chance to make it seven, before Jordan Henderson, now captain in place of the subbed Harry Kane, volleyed inches wide from a knocked-down freekick. Panama’s best ever footballing moment was unlikely to come in a game they trailed by six goals, but it may just be. A Panama freekick was whipped in well by substitute Ricardo Ávila. There to stab home with a smart finish from on the ground was fellow substitute Felipe Baloy. The Central American side’s fans went mad, as they celebrated an utterly meaningless, but no less memorable, goal. Panama’s thirty-seven-year-old centre-back had scored it.
Jordan Henderson’s attempts to keep his team in an attacking frame of mind late on was to no avail. The Three Lions’ hard work was behind them. Not too hard, mind. Gareth Southgate’s men can move on to more demanding tasks, having recorded their biggest ever victory in tournament football. They’d never scored five; they went on to grab six. England are top of the group on fair-play points. In Nizhny Novgorod, the final score of a totally barmy affair was England 6-1 Panama.