Perhaps the greatest indication of what a mismatch this was came in the surreal sight of John Stones being on a hat-trick before half time. “It was not something I thought I would do,” said the understated defender after he scored more goals in 40 minutes than Wayne Rooney did in three World Cups. He finds himself ahead of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Muller, Luis Suarez and Neymar in the scoring charts in the 2018 tournament, but then none of them have faced Panama.
It was that sort of day for England, one where the goals were outnumbered only by the statistics as they booked their place in the last 16. Harry Kane joined Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker in recording a World Cup hat-trick, meaning only the 1986 Golden Boot winner has struck more often in the competition for England. Kane leapfrogged Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo to become this tournament’s top scorer. “I’m just enjoying it,” said the increasingly prolific captain. “It was a brilliant result.”
England delivered more goals in little over an hour than they had in their two previous World Cups combined; even scoring four was a first since the 1966 final. And yet it is hard to draw meaningful conclusions about their prospects against vaguely competent teams, let alone good sides. Panama were that lamentable.
The encouraging element is that their manager remained grounded. “I didn’t particularly like the performance,” said Gareth Southgate, though qualifying those comments. “I didn’t like the start and I didn’t like the goal [conceded] at the end but I guess the bits in the middle were pretty good. I am being hyper-critical. We played some really good stuff for 35-40 minutes.”
ENGLAND PLAYER RATINGS
It showed that England have confidence and momentum. They are well coached and strategies are paying off. “We have been working on set-pieces,” Kane said. For all the progressiveness of Southgate’s management and the emphasis on possession and positioning, the reality is that dead-ball excellence has underpinned their winning start. Six of their eight goals of the tournament stemmed from set-piece situations; their opening three came from centre-backs winning headers from corners. Stones delivered his first goal for his country from Kieran Trippier’s centre while Panama were too preoccupied fouling Harry Maguire. Stones’ second came from a well-worked free kick, an unmarked Kane setting up Raheem Sterling. Jaime Penedo parried his header, but not his Manchester City teammate’s subsequent effort.
Before then came England’s best goal thus far as Jesse Lingard, who had been profligate against Tunisia, found the top corner from 20 yards. The Manchester United midfielder’s ability to run into space forms part of his appeal to Southgate. He burst behind the Panama defence before being bundled over by Fidel Escobar for the first of England’s two penalties.
Kane’s spot kick was emphatic; so was his second after he was grabbed, tugged and pulled by Anibal Godoy. His third goal was his luckiest, Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot clipping his heel to change direction. It was not, it should be said, a treble to rank alongside Hurst’s in terms of significance and it came in the sort of second half non-event that often follows a first-half rout. Perhaps there would have been still more goals had Kane not been removed. “The gaffer makes the decision,” he reasoned. “There is the bigger picture.”
World Cup 2018: Day 11 live updates
World Cup 2018: Who's in and who's out
Comment: Perspective needed over furore caused by images of leaked England team
England could savour his excellent display, along with those of Lingard and Trippier. There were few downsides, though the otherwise influential Sterling remains stuck on two international goals and Loftus-Cheek collected what Southgate thought was an unlucky caution. The manager added: “We said at half time: ‘No more yellow cards.’ That was a key part of the second half.”
Top spot in the group could be determined by the Fair Play table after England conceded, though few should begrudge Panama’s 37-year-old captain Felipe Baloy the honour of scoring his country’s first World Cup goal.
Apart from him, only Edgar Barcenas came close to scoring. Yet after the romantic tales of Panama’s unexpected qualification has come the wretched reality of a team who commit far too many fouls and waste far too much time. Their tactic of defending corners involved wrestling and could have resulted in still more penalties. Dirty and dreadful in equal measure, they have been an embarrassment to the competition.