Harry Kane bagged a hat-trick and John Stones a brace as England thrashed Panama 6-1 to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup, but did they flatter to deceive or will the big guns in this year’s tournament be casting nervous glances at the Three Lions?
By Gareth Southgate’s own admission, he “didn’t like the start and didn’t like their (Panama’s) goal at the end” and the truth is that England began with none of the dynamism that characterised the opening stanza of their win over Tunisia. With Raheem Sterling operating too close to the opposing goal, England had no one to connect midfield and attack, and the result was that it was Panama who carved out the first real chance of the match, Godoy collecting a pass from Barcenas but placing his effort wide of the post.
England were finding success down the flanks, however, with Trippier again proving an excellent outlet on the right, and it was a surging run by the Spurs right-back that would lead to the first corner of the game. The scene inside the penalty area had an air of familiarity to it with Harry Kane and Harry Maguire again subject to grappling that would not have been out of place in WWE, but in the melee John Stones somehow wriggled free of his marker to meet Trippier’s corner, sending a thumping header into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal and beyond the despairing dive of the goalkeeper.
The ninth-minute breakthrough – Stones’ first international goal – might have been expected to galvanise England but instead, they dropped off, perhaps allowing themselves a breather in the searing 30-degree heat. Panama took heart and enjoyed a brief spell of possession, at one point coming close following a great through-ball from Barcenas which, had it not been expertly cut out by Walker, would have resulted in a tap-in for the Central Americans.
It was Trippier who once again proved England’s catalyst, however, receiving the ball on the right before releasing Lingard in the box with a delicate chip forward. Lingard, under the close attention of Panama’s defenders, was pushed over and Egyptian referee Ghead Grisha had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. The resulting penalty was dispatched with aplomb, Captain Harry Kane arrowing his shot into the top-left hand corner on 22 minutes to make it 2-0.
By this time it was noticeable that Sterling, who hitherto had been unable to get himself into the game, was beginning to exert more influence, dropping as far as the centre circle to receive the ball and turning to face the opposition goal. While many of the moves he was involved in foundered or were thwarted, the effect was to release others into space. On 35 minutes, the ball found its way to Young on the left, who, after exchanging a one-two with Sterling, found Lingard on the edge of the penalty area. The Manchester United livewire reacted instinctively, cutting across goal before unleashing an unstoppable 20-yard curler into the top right-hand corner for 3-0 and England’s first goal from open play.
Three minutes later England would have a fourth from a cleverly-worked free kick routine. Standing over the ball in a central position some 40 yards from goal, Trippier passed short to Henderson who clipped an oblique cross into the penalty area. Kane, heading across goal, found Sterling who somehow contrived to head the ball straight at the goalkeeper whose parried save came out to Stones. The Manchester City defender reacted smartly, heading the ball into the roof of the net from close-range and making the score a scarcely believable 4-0 on 40 minutes.
England almost grabbed a fifth in the 42nd minute following good work on the right from Loftus Cheek. Cutting inside, he exchanged passes with Raheem Sterling before releasing Lingard, whose fierce shot from distance was blocked by a defender only to loop out for a corner. Panama had clearly not heeded the referee’s earlier warnings and, after Kane was again grappled to the ground, Grisha pointed to the spot. The Tottenham forward, who might have gone the other way, chose to put it in the exact same spot, making it 5-0 in what was a carbon copy of his first penalty.
The second half would prove something of a let-down as England, who started brightly, faded badly, although they would get a somewhat fortuitous sixth, and Kane a hat-trick, in the 61st minute, after Ruben Loftus Cheek, again cutting in from the right, unleashed a goal-bound shot that deflected off Kane’s heel on the edge of the penalty area and looped over Penedo’s head and into the Panama goal.
At 6-0, and with one eye on Belgium next Thursday, Southgate made a double substitution, bringing on Fabian Delph and Jamie Vardy for Kane and Lingard in the 62nd minute. Six minutes later, Rose would come on for Trippier, TV cameras later showing the latter having his thigh strapped.
On 75 minutes, Panama would get a goal back after a free kick on the left, midway into England’s half, was fired low across the penalty area. Ricardo Avila, unmarked, reacted first to score only his fourth goal in 103 appearances and Panama’s first ever in a World Cup.
While the result is undoubtedly pleasing, it should be remembered that Panama are one of the weakest and least experienced teams in the tournament. England though will take heart from their great effectiveness from set-pieces, a more clinical performance in front of goal and in particular from the form of Jesse Lingard.
More worrying is England’s continued difficulty in carving out clear-cut chances from open play. Let us hope that our momentum carries us forward and that our creative players improve as the tournament progresses.