Sceptics may argue Panama represent amongst the least formidable opposition to make any World Cup, but after a half-century of hurt England fans are entitled to dream again following Sunday’s 6-1 demolition of the Central American side.
It was England’s first ever World Cup win by that handsome margin and considering Panama are usually the kind of plucky underdog team the Three Lions end up painfully toiling against, the manner in which they were dispensed of before half time gives genuine cause for optimism.
So much optimism in fact, that it’s starting to feel like England can actually come back from Russia with the trophy. But is that the type of pressure-cooker-creating naivety that has forced English football to endure such relentless misery since 1966, or could there be sound logic to all the sudden hype? Here’s three reasons it’s coming home this summer…
It may sound obvious but having the World Cup’s leading goalscorer is inevitably a huge advantage and Harry Kane is currently at the forefront of the Golden Boot race (at the time of writing) after netting a hat-trick against Panama – although Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukakua aren’t too far behind.
It of course highlights the extra cutting edge he gives England, which could well prove to be the difference between victory and defeat in the knockout stage, but gives Kane a crucial personal incentive too.
The Tottenham man is desperate to finish up as the tournament’s top scorer and that personal ambition can help drive on this England team, especially in terms of their attacking play.
England have already scored four times from set pieces at this World Cup, partly due to fantastic deliveries from Kieran Trippier and Manchester United’s Ashley Young and partly because it’s clearly something Southgate’s spent a lot of time working on in training.
There’s sound logic behind that too – set pieces have the capacity to decide any game at any level, but the statistics from Brazil 2014 are incredibly telling.
Three of the four countries to reach the semi-finals finished up in the top four for set piece goals, which shows how far they can take you in the tournament even when you’re not playing the best football. England arguably are though, which brings us nicely onto…
Starting is certainly less beneficial than ending a World Cup strongly and there are no prizes for simply playing the best football – it must be matched with efficiency in results as well.
On top of that, England’s opening two opponents have been of rather modest standard; although Tunisia are probably a little better than they’ve shown at times during the tournament, Panama are pretty strong contenders for being the least qualified side involved in Russia 2018.
But from the opening rounds of fixtures, very few ‘top’ sides at the World Cup has produced football with as much freedom and flair as the Three Lions.
Germany lost their first game against Mexico and required a stoppage time wondergoal to beat Sweden, France have nervously stumbled their way through both matches so far, Brazil drew with a physical Switzerland team and were a goal-filled stoppage time away from suffering the same result against Costa Rica, and Argentina are on the verge of elimination.
In fairness, Spain and Belgium have shown their quality – but also some of their frailties – more consistently, while Portugal will always have the tournament’s biggest match-winner in Ronaldo. But has any team really rivalled the relentlessly expansive philosophy England have adopted?
Providing that doesn’t result in too many sloppy goals at the other end, it could take Southgate’s side a very long way this summer.