Petty Panama get just desserts
England came out of their Group G opener against Tunisia feeling aggrieved about being on the wrong end of some questionable refereeing decisions – namely, the shameless holding of their players inside the box during set-pieces. FA technical director Dan Ashworth had been emailing FIFA officials throughout the week to query the issue, but will have been satisfied with what he saw here.
Egyptian referee Ghead Grisha did his best to grant Panama some good grace here – arguably more than they should have been permitted. The Central Americans gave away two penalties in a first half where England scored five times; one for blatant holding inside the box, and another for a push on Jesse Lingard. They could have had another directly before their first goal when Grisha turned a blind eye to the manhandling of Harry Maguire, only for John Stones to take full advantage of Panama players' preoccupations with fouling to steer home an excellent header.
It was always expected that they would pose a frustrating physical threat, but it seems that was all they were concerned about in a disastrous first half. Panama paid the price for their petulant immaturity as the Three Lions ran riot and scored with what felt like every scoring opportunity they had before half-time – indeed, their first three shots on targets were all goals.
Captain Kane makes more history
A hat-trick took England's main man to the top of the Golden Boot charts at World Cup 2018, and made him only the third Three Lions star to net a treble after Geoff Hurst (1966 World Cup Final) and Gary Lineker (vs Poland at Mexico '86). With five strikes to his name, he's only one behind Lineker's award-winning haul from that tournament too.
In truth, this may just have been the worst hat-trick in Kane's career so far. His first two came from the penalty spot – albeit a pair of the finest spot-kicks you'll ever see – and the third unwittingly flicked off his heels from a Ruben Loftus-Cheek shot. But they all count, and long may the 24-year-old's fine scoring form continue. Catch up, Cristiano.
Set-pieces prove deadly
Who saw this one coming? Dead-balls are now a legitimate weapon in the Three Lions' armoury and shouldn't be undervalued.
Gary Cahill was the beneficiary of a headed goal from a corner in the pre-tournament warm-up against Nigeria, then England scored both goals against Tunisia from set-piece situations. Against Panama they were a constant threat too, scoring the opener through Stones, getting their fourth from a well-worked free-kick routine and then earning a penalty for holding inside the box for No.5.
Stones and Maguire are clearly worrying opposition sides, and with good reason: both have made decisive contributions in England victories against physical teams up to this point. Throw in the constant threat of Harry Kane and plenty of nimble beneficiaries of second balls, and England have a serious threat to be contended with.
Limpet Lingard shines again
A brilliant goal in this game capped another fine performance from the Manchester United man, who continues to impress with his mature development of the last 18 months. Having added goals and assists to his game in 2017/18, Lingard is now a bona fide attacking threat who fully deserved his hug from manager Gareth Southgate when he came off with 30 minutes remaining.
The 25-year-old has the intelligence to get into good positions, but also the unselfishness to provide for his team-mates – making him a popular and valuable member of this team. Lingard's industry and willingness to follow instructions have always seen him held in high regard by managers, and those attributes will keep him high in Southgate's estimations when the bigger games roll around and England require more tactical nous. So far, so encouraging.
Changes afoot for Belgium?
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez has already conceded that he'll be making "big changes" for the final group game against England, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens all injury doubts. It's likely to be reciprocated by Southgate, who will see little reason not to use his squad for what is effectively a free hit with both teams through to the last 16.
As it stands, England lead the way on fair play (both have scored eight and conceded two) – but from a cynical perspective, finishing second in the group might actually be better for either side, what with Germany likely to finish second at best in Group F. The runner-up of England's group will face one of Japan, Senegal, Colombia, Poland, then – hypothetically at this point – either Mexico or Switzerland/Serbia. The winner is most likely to face a quarter-final against Brazil.
There are arguments for and against rotation, though: Southgate will see the benefits of maximising fitness levels and squad harmony, but may also wish to keep this good momentum going. Either way, it's a selection conundrum he'll be glad to have at this stage.
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