Never in English football history has a task built up to be so difficult been so blissfully easy. Never has an England team confounded pre-match nerves quite like this.
All the talk of how hard this would be, down here in the heat of Nizhny Novgorod, up against hard-working, focused, disciplined opponents, was blown away. By England’s relentless attacking, yes, but also by Panama’s own disgraceful performance.
Those two things together gave us an England win of unprecedented size, a gleeful goal-binge of the sort England teams never quite have the stomach for, usually looking too apologetic to be this ruthless. No England team had ever won a World Cup game by more than three goals before today, but they were 5-0 up here at half-time and they could have scored plenty more in the second half had they needed to.
So they are through to the last-16, and thanks to this hefty scoreline, they are level with Belgium again. Six points, eight scored, two conceded. If they draw in Thursday’s Kaliningrad showdown, the two teams will have to be separated by fair play to decide who wins the group.
Thursday and beyond is when the football will get very serious, in a way that this was not. Because as well as England did here, and as much fun as it was, the poverty of the opposition means this will not enter the ranks of greatest ever England tournament performances. Holland 1996 this was not.
But this was still a unique afternoon, seeing England cut loose like this, still attacking, still scoring, even when the game was dead. This was a long way from what we are used to, that anxious narrow one-goal scrape with a nervous retreat in the second half. It was a long way from Monday night, the 90 minutes of tension, released only by Harry Kane at the very end.
And this was even further from the game so many of us had prepared ourselves for. There were days of earnest, respectful build-up about what a hard ugly slog this game would be. Steve Holland intoned in Repino that Panama were “well organised, athletic and clever”, and the whole football nation was getting ready for an afternoon of frustration, another patience-test.
But this was one of those rare occasions where English football overestimated the strength of the opposition. Because this Panama side was dismal. They came onto the field with only one plan, which was to foul. But that only made things worse, as they conceded two first-half penalties, both scored by Kane, and another from a corner when their defenders were more interested in wrestling than in marking. This was not 0-0 against Algeria. It was not even 2-0 against Trinidad.
The game was more one-sided than you would ever want to see at a major tournament, and so felt wildly at odds with what we have seen in Russia so far. Remember that it took Belgium until the start of the second half to score past Panama. It took Brazil 91 minutes to score past Costa Rica. Here, England were 5-0 up at half-time.
The ease of the win also confounded worries that it would be impossible for England to attack down here in this greenhouse of a stadium in the basin of the Volga. With temperatures in the 30s, and the sun shining through plastic panels onto the pitch, it felt like another reason why this would be hard, and another potential excuse if it went wrong. But in truth it was the dirty aggression of the Panama players - Jesse Lingard laid out from a first-minute elbow - that was the biggest threat to England’s rhythm at the start.
But in football violence is meant to be means, not an end in itself. When Kieran Trippier stood over a corner from the right, eight minutes in, the Panama defenders were desperate to straight-jacket Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane. So desperate that they lost sight of the whole point of marking, and lost sight of the other man. John Stones looked like the only man without a dance partner, but he was free to head in.
It briefly felt as if England now needed to score a second, to take advantage of being on top, to pull away from their opponent in a way that they never managed against Tunisia. But there was never any real tension to it, because once England were ahead, the Panamanian defence collapsed. Every time England attacked they looked like scoring, and when it came, the second goal was even easier than the first.
Trippier chipped a ball over the top to Jesse Lingard, who was of course bundled over by Fidel Escobar and Roman Torres, Panama’s hapless centre-halves. Harry Kane put the penalty into the top left corner.
This was the moment England had been waiting for, their first two-goal first-half lead in a World Cup game since 2002. And with that, all that freedom and energy that Southgate promised came flooding into England’s play. England were still waiting for their first open-play goal of the World Cup but that came next as Jesse Lingard cut in from the left, passed to Sterling, received the return and bent a shot from 20 yards into the far top corner of the net.
Better opponents might have got through to half-time at 3-0 and re-grouped from there. Panama found time to conceded two more. England’s fourth was from an inventive set-piece move, Trippier to Henderson to Kane to Sterling, whose shot was saved, but Stones’ header was not. Again, the lack of marking from a team which is meant to be nothing if not defensively disciplined was remarkable.
And then, if any final proof was needed that mistakes were going ignored and repeated, the fifth goal. Another corner, Kane again in a bear-hug from Anibal Godoy, and a clear penalty decision. It felt absurd for a team in this position to be handing out gifts like this, but Kane is not a man to say no out of politeness. The penalty went the same way as his last one.
The second half was a non-event, of course, but there was time for Kane to score an unlikely third. Ruben Loftus-Cheek let off a shot from 25 yards out, it clipped Kane on the back of a heel and deflected past Jaime Penedo and into the net. It was not the best hat-trick of his career - penalty, penalty, deflection - but it came captaining England in the World Cup. Not many players can say that. He now has five for the tournament and is winning the Golden Boot race.
Panama did rally, in a sense, long after their thousands of fans were subdued by the scoreline. Substitute Felipe Baloy scored a late consolation goal from a free-kick to end the game 6-1. Leaving England matched with Belgium on goal difference, but leaving Nizhny happy, energised, celebrating in front of their fans, but still slightly wondering how good they are.
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