THERE is something about this England side that sets it apart from its World Cup sides of the last few decades. It showed on Sunday when England ran riot against Panama, teaching the World Cup debutants a harsh lesson in a 6-1 — a scoreline that includes captain Harry Kane’s hat-trick — humbling for their biggest victory ever at world football’s showpiece tournament.
It would be too early, though, to claim England can go on and actually win the World Cup but this was a statement from them. Put into perspective that one of the dark-horses at this tournament, Belgium, couldn’t breach the Panamanian defence till half-time in their game, this triumph — England were 5-0 up even before the first-half had ended — could make Gareth Southgate’s team cautiously optimistic that they have a good chance of winning their first World Cup title since their sole triumph in 1966.
Plenty of sides have come and gone since including England’s golden generation of the 2000s but none was able to deliver that long-sought title at the global stage. The England side that played during the first decade of the 21st century had some their most gifted players, went into every tournament as favourites yet failed spectacularly, resulting in endless dialogue why the players who were so good at club level wouldn’t fare so well for the national team.
Some of those stars including Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard revealed in the buildup to the World Cup in Russia the rifts that plagued the England side they played in because of their club loyalties. There was individual energy but no synergy. Then there was also the incessant media hype surrounding the team. The players, their personal lives, were all the talk heading into the World Cup. Every action was under scrutiny.
This time too, Raheem Sterling’s ‘rifle’ tattoo on his right foot made the headlines until the Manchester City star clarified what it really meant. Before the game against Panama, there was the issue that threatened to derail the team — assistant coach Steve Holland accidentally disclosing the England side for the game against the Central Americans. However, this young England side — the youngest lot picked since the 1962 World Cup — showed the character to not let all that was happening off the pitch to hamper them on it.
“We have a totally new squad, a new manager and we’ve started well,” midfielder Jordan Henderson told reporters after the match. “We played a great first half and got all the goals we needed.”
In sweltering heat at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, England made a flying start, with John Stones’ two headed goals, two penalties from Kane and a searing strike from Jesse Lingard putting them well clear by the end of the first half. Kane completed a hat-trick with a goal he didn’t know much about, and becoming the tournament’s top goal-scorer so far with five goals, before Panama got a consolation through Felipe Baloy.
“It’s been great so far,” Kane said at the post-match press conference when asked if he wanted to win the tournament’s golden boot. “It’s a long way to go if my goals help the team to win, it’s a perfect situation.”
It is only the third time that England have won their opening two matches at a World Cup and they are through to the last-16 alongside Belgium, who they play in Kaliningrad on Thursday to decide the winner of Group ‘G’.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez had already said he will rest some of his players for that game but Kane wasn’t in the mood to be rested. “I want to play to continue the form I’m in. It’s important we finish top and take the momentum into the knockout stages.”
Southgate has presided over England’s trouble-free qualifying and has created a squad that is showing great harmony. England’s resilience, though, was what pleased him most against Panama.
“We showed different qualities than in the first game [a 2-1 win over Tunisia],” he said at the press conference afterwards. “We had to show a lot of resilience to get a winner at the end of the first game but here Panama had nine players behind the ball. However, once we found the space to play, we saw some lovely bits of football.”
TIME AND SPACE
Panama had showed some muscle in their 3-0 defeat to Belgium in their opening match but gave England too much time and space on the ball. Defenders Stones, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire could easily play the ball to the wings where Sterling and Lingard could run at the Panamanian defence. England took the lead in the eighth minute when Stones ran on to meet a corner from the right and were 2-0 up in the 22nd when Kane converted from the spot after Lingard was bundled down by two Panama defenders.
Lingard added the third in the 36th minute when he latched onto the ball after a quick one-two with Sterling on the edge of the box and unleashed a rocket past the hapless Jaime Penedo. The fourth came four minutes later when Stones headed in a rebound after Sterling’s header from a well-worked free-kick was saved by Penedo and Kane added a fifth in first-half injury time with another penalty.
It seemed England would give Panama some respite in the second-half but they came quickly out of their blocks and Kane completed his treble when he deflected in Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot from distance from the back of his foot.
Panamanian fans had gathered in great numbers at Russia’s city of literature, art and music for the game, bringing a lot of colour and noise to the sleepy city on the banks of the Volga and they had something to cheer when Baloy scored in the 78th when he slid in to connect to a free-kick. The loudest cheers, though, were reserved for England. It was a complete performance, a resounding one that will make others stand up and take notice.
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2018