This is all very surreal. The first time England had scored more than four goals in a World Cup finals game. The last time they scored four? The 1966 World Cup final, and even then they needed extra time.
Panama came for a punch-up but were pummelled out of this World Cup. By half-time. They resembled that paralytic bloke who starts a bar fight late into the night, swings a haymaker, misses wildly, and tumbles to the floor.
It really was a good job Panama didn’t know England’s starting line-up a few days before kick-off. The build-up had been overshadowed by the reporting of a picture of Steve Holland’s notes during an open training session, appearing to show Raheem Sterling dropped for Marcus Rashford. Supporters and plenty of pundits were furious with the press. In the end, it wasn’t even the team. Sterling kept his place and did everything but score.
Panama did everything but play football for almost 90 minutes. Talk about dirty tactics: this was the footballing equivalent of Mike Tyson chewing off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The forearm smash on Jesse Lingard in the opening minutes set the tone.
Still, it only took seven minutes for England to duck and weave away from their opponents. For once, being the slighter, more slender defender in the pack paid dividends for John Stones. The Panamanians were so busy wrestling the bigger lads – Harry Kane, Harry Maguire (known as “Big H”) and Kyle Walker – they had ignored the ball as it was swung in by Kieran Trippier and the late run Stones made into the box to head in, unmarked, from seven yards out.
Still the grabbing and grappling continued: Roman Torres and Fidel Escobar were practically fighting each other to pull at Lingard when he crept in behind them and took Trippier’s ball on his chest, so it was hard to tell which one actually committed the foul for the first penalty.
Kane picked up the ball straight away, but had a while to wait as the referee tried to keep the Panamanians under control. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo stood on one post, delaying. All the outfield players were outside the penalty area until Edgar Barcenas strolled over to have one more word in Kane’s ear. A few minor scuffles broke out. Kane hit the sort of penalty that breaks bones if somebody gets in the way.
Then karma rewarded Lingard for taking all those kicks and knocks with one of the tournament’s great goals: a one-two with Sterling before he curled into the top-right corner from outside the area, clipping the bar on its way in.
Four minutes later, and still five before the break (and the first-half scoring was still not over at this point) Stones added his second. England’s set-pieces so far in the tournament have been executed as though they are a group of clubmates who’ve been together for years.
Rather than play a free-kick straight into the box, Trippier laid off to Jordan Henderson, his ball was headed across goal by Kane, Sterling’s downward header was saved but Stones nodded in the follow-up.
And then the fifth: Anibal Godoy was pulling so furiously at Kane’s shirt it was as though he was desperate to remove it before any of his team-mates tried to get it at half-time. The penalty was no trouble for Kane again.
It was not, in the end, the perfect World Cup performance. Felipe Baloy ran between England’s defenders and stretched to steer in Ricardo Avila’s free-kick for a late consolation. Jordan Pickford was furious with Stones for losing his man. A good sign that any imperfection will not be tolerated. It was Panama’s first ever World Cup goal as the game squeezed out one more record, and will ultimately do little to dampen England expectations now.
Kane completed his (Panama) hat-trick early in the second half. It had a dollop of fortune, but he was always going to claim it (we know that for sure). Ruben Loftus-Cheek – brought in for the injured Dele Alli, England’s only change – took a shot which hit Kane’s heel and flew in, making him the third England player to score a hat-trick at a World Cup, after Gary Lineker against Poland in 1986 and Geoff Hurst in the 1966 final against Germany. His fifth goal in two games moved him to outright tournament top scorer, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.
As mentioned: this is all very surreal.