England v Panama, Sunday 24th June, 13:00
As is per the norm at major championships, England put their fans through the ringer in their opener against Tunisia – even if this time it did actually feel a little different. The dark spells, mainly those in a second half that were the antithesis of those thrilling opening 30 minutes, were still handled with calmness and clarity of thought. Gareth Southgate cut a composed figure in the technical area, his players followed suit on the pitch and when Harry Kane nodded home the 91st-minute winner, it was met with euphoria but not complete surprise.
While this England squad may not compare to squads of yesteryear in terms of big names and those deemed ‘world class’ by the media, Southgate has drilled into his troops that rare English commodity of resilience. When, during the aforementioned fallow periods and particularly late on, instinct would have told them to go all ‘English’ and launch the ball hopefully into the Tunisian box, they resisted and trusted the game plan. That it paid off – albeit they had to wait until the eleventh hour for their reward – was a personal triumph for Southgate.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing, and in a camp that has been literally blemish-free since they met up at St George’s Park over a month ago, the first cracks were evident as against limited opposition, there were spells when England creaked at the back.
The uncertainty in Kyle Walker’s positioning when giving away the pen that led to Tunisia’s goal was borne of him playing in an unfamiliar position and will have been noted by others, so too the tendency of both John Stones and Harry Maguire to overplay at times in the wrong areas. But a rare English likeability factor still holds, so too does the often-fractious relationship with the media, and against a Panama side whose World Cup party was cruelly crashed by the Belgians, they will be confident of making it two wins in two.
Panama meanwhile will be keen to get the three-goal thumping out of their system and, while qualification for the knockout stages was always a long shot, they will be keen to take at least one scalp back to Central America. England beware. What the Panamanians must try and do is rediscover the fortitude shown in the first 45 against Belgium. They frustrated, they fought, they spoiled and in doing so disrupted the Belgian’s rhythm – something they simply must do for the full 90+ minutes if they are to get anything from this game.
They’ll be well aware of England’s propensity to implode when the stakes are at their highest and you can be sure coach Hernán Darío Gómez will use Iceland’s win against England in Euro 2016 as a point of reference. He’ll remind his players of how the English historically react to World Cup pressure and demand they try and create some.
The smart money will, of course, be on an England win but given their uncertainty in defence, it’s reasonable to expect the Panamanians to grab themselves a goal.
Belgium to Earn a Narrow Victory against Tough Tunisia
Belgium v Tunisia, Saturday 23rd June, 13:00
With the Belgians having dispatched the Panamanians with some considerable ease, the mood in their camp is buoyant. Despite a difficult opening half, in which the Central Americans used strength, heart and the momentum from qualifying to thwart their highly-fancied opponents, an early second-half strike from Dries Mertens was effectively the moment this tie was won.
Yet Belgium coach Roberto Martinez will have noted how his side laboured in the opening 45, something that won’t have been lost on future opponents, and possible future opponents, including Team Southgate. The Belgians looked laboured and ponderous, and far removed from the potent, goal-scoring machine they have been described in the run-up to the tournament. The age-old rumblings of them being a squad of highly talented, top-level individuals and not necessarily a good team were quick to resurface as the first-half progressed – such is the nature of social media 2018-style – but these soon rescinded the second Mertens’ perfectly struck, dipping volley whistle into the Panama net.
From thereon in it was business as usual and with their opponents having no choice but to be a little more adventurous, the talents of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne were finally afforded the time and space to flourish and the Belgians started to resemble the good side that they are. Romelu Lukaku also plundered a couple as the scoreline hit predicted levels (or at least as predicted by us in our recommended bet for the match: Belgium to win 3-0)
For their part, the Tunisians did give England a scare – and arguably did just enough to justify their place as the highest ranked African team in the FIFA rankings – but also exposed their limitations to the world. They are clearly well-drilled, they play neat, passing football and have an appreciation of the game’s dark arts right up there with the best Sergio Ramos has to offer, but they offer only a limited attacking threat in open play. Against the English, their biggest threat came from set plays and against an England back-three that is yet to convince they created precious little.
Their answer to England’s pace – which exposed them horribly in the first half – was to drop deep and make themselves tough to break down, which worked to a degree but reduced their attacking thrust down to virtually nothing. For them to progress, they need to beat Belgium – and that’s not likely to happen. Belgium to win is the obvious bet – the trick is to gauge by how many. Interestingly, in their only two other meetings, the games have been very tight – a 1-1 draw in 2002 and a 1-0 win for Belgium in 2014.