ENGLAND might inadvertently have tipped off Panama as to their starting line-up for today’s Group G meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, but it matters little. Yes, it looks like a good media story, but I highly doubt it will make any difference to the flow of events on the pitch.

Prior to England’s initial 2-1 win against Tunisia, journalists who had been paying attention all knew the composition of the side by using their eyes and ears.

It is no secret that Gareth Southgate favours three at the back, two wing-backs, two front men and a variety of combinations in midfield according to the opposition. Against more obdurate, defensive-minded teams such as Tunisia and Panama, there is scope for two more incisive attacking minded midfielders and a single sitter to give protection. With Dele Alli ruled out through injury and Ruben Loftus-Cheek making such a substantial contribution off the bench on Monday, most could have predicted that change.

As for Marcus Rashford getting the green light in preference to Raheem Sterling, it is an entirely understandable move. Sterling was far from his best in Volgograd and every manager has to shake things up slightly during a tournament to see if other options work.

The Tunisia game saw England begin perfectly. I thought it just about the best start of any team at this World Cup. After a sizzling opening 25 minutes, it was less dazzling and I wonder if we would be speaking in such glowing overall tones had Harry Kane not grabbed the late winner with the Tunisian defence posted missing.

What will Panama offer? In my view their level is well below that of Tunisia. England must aim for a similarly cogent approach. Having reached the World Cup finals for the first time, the Panamanian problem is how to push things on with a squad full of old timers in football terms.

The dilemma for coach Hernan Dario Gomez lies in the question of whether to start with a back 4 as he did in the 3-0 defeat by Belgium, or use a shield of 5. In March I watched the latter set up work well in a narrow 1-0 reverse away to Denmark. But that same constellation got its comeuppance a few days later when Switzerland put 6 past the Panamanians.

The truth is, the same thing could happen today. Panama are vulnerable to fleet footed midfielders and attackers and must be on their guard from the outset.

It is a team that owes much to Major League Soccer in North America. 4 of the side that began the Belgium game currently play in MLS while 5 others have been involved in the 22 year old league at some stage.

They do have a fine, experienced keeper in Jamie Penedo, who has been Romanian based with Dinamo Bucharest since 2016. Michael Murillo of the New York Red Bulls is an exception to the senior statesmen rule and at 22 appears to have a bright future.

Blas Perez, their 37 year old striker is well travelled with Municipal of Guatemala the latest stop on his football journey. Perez has know how but shouldn’t represent a particular threat to Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire. In the aforementioned game in Copenhagen, he was sent off for a high boot on goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

I will be surprised if England don’t at least match Belgium’s total against Panama from the other day. Then, they must go into the final group contest with the Rode Duivels anticipating a sterner test, one that might call for a second more defensive midfield player, Eric Dier, at the expense of a more forward thinker.

But for now, leaks are the least of England’s worries. Unless of course, Jordan Pickford chooses to follow in the tradition of the country’s goalkeepers at recent major tournaments. Frankly I can’t see anything other than plain sailing against Los Canaleros.


Regular readers of the column know I’ve been a VAR proponent for a long time. I do wonder if the World Cup has changed the views of video technology sceptics?

As we have to keep repeating, VAR is no panacea but it helps referees get the big decisions right. Because I see it weekly working on the Bundesliga, it gets to the point where a match seems incomplete without it.

I particularly enjoyed the annulled penalty award to Brazil against Costa Rica on Friday afternoon. Neymar went to ground without good cause but Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, one of the leading referees in Europe, was initially duped and gave the spot kick.

However upon receiving advice from the Moscow control centre and upon further watching, he saw it differently and reversed the previous decision. Same man, fresh view, new verdict. It took barely any time at all. What’s not to like?

Some will argue that unless it corrects everything one hundred percent it has no place. I can’t agree with that line of thinking.

It is incongruous for a viewer in his or her living room to enjoy a more advantageous view than the man charged with making the call on the pitch. VAR is making the game fairer and in my view better at this World Cup. It is here to stay.