MX23RW : Tuesday, September 25 13:42:50

World Cup preview: Panama

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the chances of tournament debutants Panama, who have been drawn in a group alongside Belgium and England.

Panama will grace the World Cup stage for the first time in their history this summer when they travel to Russia.

One of only two tournament debutants for the 2018 edition, Panama have enjoyed modest success in the Gold Cup over recent years and will hope to spring a few surprises at this summer's World Cup.

The Panama team lines up ahead of their World Cup warm-up game with Northern Ireland in May 2018© Reuters

Qualification came in dramatic fashion and not much will be expected of the Central American nation at the tournament itself, but stranger things have happened than Panama enjoying an unlikely run into the knockout stages.

Here, Sports Mole previews their chances in Russia.


GROUP

Any group was going to be a difficult ask for Panama on their first ever World Cup appearance, but they may still have hoped for a kinder draw than they received in Group G.

World Cup Group G

While a number of groups have second place seemingly up for grabs - at least if results go expected - Belgium and England are the clear favourites to finish above Panama and Tunisia, so there will need to be some upsets along the way if that doesn't prove to be the case.

Unfortunately for Hernan Dario Gomez's side, their two most difficult games come in their opening two World Cup outings, which could mean that they go into their final match against Tunisia already eliminated from the competition.

PANAMA FIXTURES

June 18: Belgium vs. Panama (4pm, Fisht Olympic Stadium, Sochi)
June 24: England vs. Panama (1pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)
June 28: Panama vs. Tunisia (7pm, Mordovia Arena, Saransk)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

It was almost written in the stars that Panama's captain and poster boy Roman Torres would pop up from defence and score the goal which took his nation to the World Cup.

The Seattle Sounders man was a hero in his home nation even before firing an 88th-minute winner past the keeper on the final day of qualifying, sealing a 2-1 win over the already-qualified Costa Rica on an unprecedented night of drama in the CONCACAF section.

Panama's Roman Torres celebrates with manager Hernan Dario Gomez following their qualification for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Before that goal Panama sat fifth in the standings and were due to miss out on an intercontinental playoff to the United States by one point, but the victory catapulted them up to third, sealing an automatic route to Russia.

Panama only won six of their 16 games throughout qualifying, finishing second in the first phase before a six-match winless streak in the midst of the second phase left them playing catchup.

A 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in September 2017 gave them hope going into the final two games, but a 4-0 defeat to USA in their penultimate outing left automatic qualification out of their hands.

However, results fell very kindly for them on the final day, with USA falling to defeat against Trinidad and Tobago - who had lost eight of their nine previous outings - Honduras beating Mexico and Torres's late winner capping a night of shocks which changed the face of the qualifying group completely.


RECENT FORM

A 1-0 loss to Norway in their final pre-World Cup friendly was not ideal preparation for the Central Americans, it is fair to say, with Bournemouth striker Joshua King netting the only goal of the game early on for the home side.

Worryingly for Panama, they head into the competition with one goal in their last five matches - that coming in a 1-0 win against Trinidad and Tobago two months ago.

Panama's Jose Rodriguez in action with Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans during an international friendly in May 2018© Reuters

Los Canaleros managed just one shot on target in Oslo, having also been restricted to five in their goalless draw with Northern Ireland in their final home outing before the competition gets underway.

Arguably the biggest positive for Panama across their eight friendlies since qualifying was a 1-1 draw against Wales in Cardiff, taking advantage of a Dragons side that had been heavily rotated by the time of their late leveller.

Undoubtedly the worst result, meanwhile, was a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Switzerland in March, with six different players registering in Lucerne - four of those in the opening 39 minutes.


SQUAD

Panama World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest), Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco).

Defenders: Felipe Baloy (Municipal CSD), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Erick Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar, Michael Murillo, Adolfo Machado, Luis Ovalle, Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders).

Midfielders: Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent), Edgar Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario).

Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sports Boys), Gabriel Torres (CD Huachipato).


STAR PLAYER - Roman Torres

Panama captain Roman Torres celebrates after scoring the goal which sent his side to their first ever World Cup© Reuters

Torres will never have to buy a drink in Panama again after scoring the goal that took his nation to the World Cup for the first time, and anything else he can lead them to this summer will be merely a bonus.

The 32-year-old plays his club football for Seattle Sounders in the MLS, helping them to the MLS Cup in 2016 having previously spent the majority of his career in Colombia.

Torres has amassed a whopping 108 caps for his country since making his debut in 2005, although he is by no means alone when it comes to stalwarts of the current squad, with Panama boasting no fewer than six centurions, and one more player who could make his 100th international appearance at the World Cup.

Gabriel Gomez leads the way with an all-time record of 144 caps, while forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada are the joint-top scorers in Panama's history with 43 goals apiece.


MANAGER - Hernan Dario Gomez

Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez on March 27, 2018© Reuters

Gomez has already earned his place in the hearts of all Panamanians by leading the team to their first ever World Cup, but for the man himself this will not be a new experience.

The Colombian led Ecuador to the World Cup for the first time in 2002, four years after being in charge of his home nation at France 1998.

Indeed, even before then Gomez was assistant manager of Colombia at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, so this will be his fifth taste of the tournament, and he is one of only four men to have steered at least three different nations to the World Cup.

However, the 62-year-old's career has not been without controversy - he was forced to resign from a second stint in charge of the Colombian team in 2011 after attacking a woman at a pub in Bogota.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: None

Panama are making their World Cup debut this summer; their nearest experience to a tournament of such scale comes in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they finished as runners-up in 2005 and 2013.


PREDICTION

So much as a point will be considered a good return for Panama this summer, but that is not to say that they will be pushovers. The Central Americans have reached the World Cup on merit and, while it would be a minor miracle for them to qualify from the group, any team expecting an easy win from this fixture could be in for a sharp wake-up call.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group G

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