England celebrate after victory over Panama sealed a berth in the knockout stages. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Perhaps we should start with a note of caution. The opposition will not always be this obliging and nobody, surely, can expect Harry Kane to keep scoring so prodigiously throughout the rest of the World Cup. Maybe England have peaked too soon. And no doubt the most overheard line over the next 24 hours will be that, yes, it was only Panama. Stay calm, it was only Panama.
All the same, it was difficult to come away from the latest win for Gareth Southgate’s increasingly convincing side without the overwhelming feeling that it has been a long time since an England team have played this freely.
It was their biggest ever World Cup victory – thoroughly eclipsing the 3-0 against Denmark in 2006 – and at half-time, no kidding, there were people in the pressbox flicking through the history books to find out how many more goals were needed to establish the biggest ever win in World Cup history.
England were 5-0 ahead at that time courtesy of two penalties from Kane, supplemented by two headed goals from John Stones and a beauty from Jesse Lingard. Kane’s hat-trick followed in the 63rd minute and, after that, it came as a jolt that the only other goal came off a Panamanian foot.
Hungary’s 10-1 win against El Salvador in 1982 will have to wait for another day. Thursday, perhaps, when Belgium are the opposition, to establish which team wins Group G.
Already, though, it is mission accomplished as far as qualification is concerned and, on this evidence, it is no exaggeration to say England should not fear anybody. Kane is now the leading scorer in the tournament and Gary Lineker is the only player, though all the ages, who has managed more than his five goals. Yet the acclaim here should not just apply to Kane when Stones has been so effective in either penalty area, when Kieran Tripper’s supply line has been so instrumental and Jesse Lingard is emerging as a genuine category-A player.
England had never before scored five first-half goals and it is only the third time in the history of this team, our of 24 attempts, when they have begun any major tournament by winning back-to-back matches, emulating the World Cups of 1982 and 2006. It’s still only two games but, slowly but surely, something important is happening. England are becoming the team their supporters want them to be. And it is great fun.
Panama’s ordeal did at least include the consolation of a 76th-minute goal for the substitute Felipe Baloy and their supporters were still partying at the end. Ultimately, though, the imbalance of talent was far too great for a team fielding four players from Major League Soccer and others from the Romanian and Slovakian leagues. Panama had to resort to other measures.
They argued with the officials. Their goalkeeper, Jaime Penedo, briefly seemed to be threatening a one-man protest before Kane’s first penalty, and it was incredible, in particular, sometimes to see their tactics when they were defending England’s corners.
Even by modern standards, it was rare to see a set of players so dedicated to restricting the mobility, WWE-style, of their opponents. It led to Kane’s penalty, to make it 5-0, when Anibal Godoy manhandled him to the floor. Yet that was the norm, rather than the exception, as far as Panama were concerned and an argument could be made that they also got their just desserts for the opening goal.
For that one, Harry Maguire had already been brought to his knees twice because of Gabriel Gomez’s attempts to pin him down. Godoy was clinging to Harry Kane like a mollusc on the side of an old ship. Twice, the corner had to be delayed to sort out all the chaos. Nobody, however, seemed to designate Stones as a potential danger. Trippier swung the ball over from the right, Jordan Henderson took out a couple of defenders with his run to the near-post and Stones followed in to power in his header from eight yards.
Eight minutes had gone and already it was clear that it was going to be harder to like Panama than many of us imagined. Indeed, England ought to have had a penalty inside the first 90 seconds after Gomez swung an elbow into Lingard’s jaw. Gomez, a repeat offender, went down clutching his own face and the Egyptian referee, Ghead Grisha, was taken in by the deception.
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Later in the first half, an elbow from Armando Cooper left bloody coming from Maguire’s nose. Roman Torres responded to Maguire’s complaints by flicking his opponent’s nose and then putting in his forehead like a rutting stag. Southgate had told his players not to react to any provocation and they did not let him down.
Instead, this was a performance that brought to mind the old line from Frank Sinatra that the best revenge is massive success. Kane’s first penalty came from Fidel Escobar bundling over Lingard. Kane struck the ball high, to the goalkeeper’s right, in a manner reminiscent of Alan Shearer.
For good measure, he also did the same for the fifth goal.
Lingard’s was the pick of the goals, exchanging passes with Raheem Sterling before running across the line of the penalty area, left to right, and curling a shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar. Yet the fourth goal was brilliantly worked, too. This time, Trippier played a free-kick short to Henderson. His cross was headed down by Kane and Stones headed in the rebound after Penedo had blocked Sterling’s first effort.
The second half was an exercise in damage limitation for Panama and, to give them their due, Kane’s hat-trick goal was a fluke. Ruben Loftus-Cheek let fly from 20 yards and the ball flicked off Kane’s instep to loop in.
England’s lingering imperfections were briefly exposed when Baloy turned in a free-kick from the left. No matter. England can still enjoy the view from the top of Group G, with the same goal difference as Belgium but ahead on fair-play rules. Nobody should get too carried away but, good heavens, it is hard sometimes.