England 6 Panama 1
England have flattered to deceive in so many tournaments and over-sold themselves in so many others, but the 2018 Harry Kane version is dragging even the biggest cynics to the point of no return.
A 6-1 victory over Panama, who were woeful, is not enough on its own to suggest the perennial over-promisers and under-achievers are about to break the mould; but the bigger picture does look positive for Gareth Southgate’s side having reached the last 16 in Russia with a game to spare.
This was the performance of a team totally confident in the way it plays, made of up players who are totally at home with each other both on and off the field.
On the pitch they added ruthless finishing to the possession football which earned England a narrow victory over Tunisia in the opening game in Group G, and a smattering of magic dust too in particular a wonderful curling finish for the third goal from ‘Lionel Jesse’ Lingard who has flourished under Southgate’s management.
Off the pitch, the sight of England substitutes casually bantering on the bench with no sign of nerves told a story too, while the first goal for John Stones came from a well-worked corner and the fourth (finished by the same man) arrived following an intricate free-kick routine which had clearly been practised on the training ground.
Everything England did in an opening half after which they led 5-0, including two Kane penalties, reflected well on the coaching, management and organisation of a side which could still cause a surprise in Russia after so many years of frustration and disappointment.
England have had plenty of big name players over the last 25 years or so, from David Beckham to Steven Gerrard, from Paul Gascoigne to Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, from Michael Owen to Frank Lampard. But they have rarely had a team so aligned to one philosophy and so united in their approach.
That’s not to say they are real contenders just yet because the big hurdle for all England teams has come in the knockout stages when the pressure cranks up and the dreaded penalties loom large.
But there has been an inner calm and inner belief in the current squad that is an astonishing contrast to the team of Euro 2016 which played with fear, with pressure and with players out of position and out of form.
Quite how Southgate has managed to turn things around so quickly is a mystery but most of it seems to come from a common sense approach that doesn’t take itself too seriously and treats players as adults.
Even in the second half in Nizhny Novgorod, when England understandably took their foot off the pedal somewhat, you could see the shape of the team intact; and although they will be disappointed with the goal conceded, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Of course Kane is the key. The man who was asked to take corners under Roy Hodgson in France two years ago is now a real focal point for his team and a finisher of the very highest calibre.
His two penalties, both ferociously fired high into the roof of the net, and a fortunate third which struck his heel on the way in, mean he now leads the race for the Golden Boot with five goals, and that he has scored an astonishing 11 goals in just seven matches as England captain.
62mins: Harry Kane secures his hat-trick without really knowing what was going on. VAR not helping Panama in what looked like an offside goal.#RTEsoccerJune 24, 2018
But it’s not only about goals. It was Kane’s all-round performance which galvanised the team, including an excellent headed assist during that free-kick routine — finished off by Stones — which made it 4-0 and totally broke Panama’s resolve.
His display justified a decision by one English national newspaper to offer Harry Kane masks for readers to download on the day of the game; and although that kind of overkill is what has harmed England on so many occasions before, at least this time the feeling in the media and in the country is positive. Just ask Germany how much they would like to say the same.
Whether Southgate’s side are now in danger of slipping into the bad old ways — of over-confidence, lack of concentration and an inability to cope with big moments of pressure or the weight of expectation from back home — remains to be seen.
But the signs for England, who play Belgium on Thursday to decide who finishes top of the group, are certainly good.
ENGLAND: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Trippier (Rose 70), Loftus-Cheek, Henderson, Lingard (Delph 64), Young, Sterling, Kane (Vardy 63).
PANAMA: Penedo, Murillo, Roman Torres, Escobar, Davis, Barcenas (Arroyo 69), Cooper, Gomez (Baloy 69), Godoy (Avila 64), Jose Luis Rodriguez, Perez.
Referee: Gehad Grisha (Egypt).
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