How did Panama play?
Tuesday night's 6-0 defeat at Switzerland was a horrible, chastening night for Panama. For 22 minutes all seemed well. They were set-up to be resilient rather than flamboyant; organised to protect goal, work tirelessly without the ball, and use their physique and athleticism to ensure the training ground defensive drills were carried out with military precision.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez must have spent the months since qualifying seeking to implement the Iceland blueprint for success. But once they fell behind their vulnerabilities were exposed in a torturous 18 minutes before half-time. In that spell the discipline evaporated, heads bowed and in a naive effort to play 20 yards higher up the pitch they were picked off at will, trailing 4-0 at the interval.
England will not be fooled by this disintegration, however. This was another international fixture demonstrating the importance of the first goal. Gareth Southgate’s first instruction to his side in Russia will be: “Score early.” His second instruction will be: “For the love of God, please, you must score early.”
What can England expect?
Remember all those qualifying games where England monopolised the ball, the opposition soaked it up, and your mind drifted between daring to think the goal will never come, or whether to switch channels entirely?
Regardless of this result is no bold prediction to suggest the theme of the World Cup meeting with Panama could be the same. Coach Gomez was using these European friendlies with Denmark and Switzerland to experiment with three centre-halves, assisted by the return of Harold Cummings after a broken leg ruled him out of most of qualifying.
But given the defensive degeneration here there may be a rethink before Russia. Michael Murillo offers the pace as a right wing-back and another youngster, Ricardo Avila, shows promise on the left, but combinations between the midfielders – who were supposed to protect the defence – and striker Gabriel Torres, a player who once had a trial with Manchester United, were non-existent. They will have to repair the system and confidence before June.
At first glance there is as much olden as golden generation around this Panama side, World Cup qualification the culmination of 15 years work for players who first made history when reaching the U20 World Cup in 2003.
Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, currently of Dinamo Bucharest, is 36. Centre-half Adolfo Machado is 33, and even the team’s talisman Roman Torres – the man whose goal took his country to their first World Cup when they defeated Costa Rica – is heading towards veteran status. Such relative senior citizenship must be a concern, but Gomez is also looking to the future with the introduction of 22-year-old Murillo, and 21-year-old midfielder Avila. Their glaring weakness against the Swiss was in central midfield. It was the errors of San Jose Earthquakes’ Anibal Godoy, twice losing possession near his own penalty area, that created the space for Blerim Dzemaili to strike the first. Although a disputed Granit Xhaka penalty, Breel Embolo, Steven Zuber, Josip Drmic and Fabian Frei punished further mistakes, the first goal set the course for the night.
Hernan Dario Gomez did not disguise his concerns after the loss, accepting England and Belgium will not be worried on this evidence.
“I need to know if the team at the World Cup is the team that played well against Denmark, or the team that played in this game,” he said.
“Other countries concede goals, but the most important thing is not to lose the willingness or desire to do well when we get to the World Cup. We know we cannot show the kind of performance we showed here but we must also remember this is a new team that must learn from its experience and ensure we avoid a fiasco at the World Cup.” Gomez admitted his team was “stripped naked” by the extra speed and class of the Swiss, especially on the counter-attack. The Panama fans so exuberantly welcoming the prospect of their side taking on the world’s best must be worried.
Player to watch
Not so much the player to watch, but the player you cannot fail to notice. There is an obvious star in this side – Roman Torres. It is too late in his career to secure the life-changing move to Europe, but if Panama are to have any success it will be built around their experienced defenders and he has the charisma to become a symbol of the World Cup.
He will want to forget this night – he conceded a penalty after a Dzemaili dive here – but will take comfort from the fact Fifa’s VAR system would have ruled that out in the summer.