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Panama are organised and tough but hoping for a miracle against England

The parallel between Panama – England's next opponents – and Costa Rica is a fairly obvious one. Both are Central American countries, both are small, and both are used to being underestimated on the football pitch.

But while Costa Rica are playing at their fifth World Cup, Panama are at their first, thanks to a dramatic, last-gasp strike in qualifying – against, you guessed it: Costa Rica.

After a controversial “ghost goal” from a scramble in the box saw them equalise, centre-back and team icon Roman Torres crashed in a header in the 88th minute to make the score 2-1. It was enough to send Panama to Russia, in place of the United States.

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Having beaten Costa Rica to make it, Panama are now aiming to emulate their neighbours.

An opening 3-0 defeat by star-studded Belgium on Monday may have dampened their faint hopes of getting out of Group G, but a win or draw in their remaining games against England and Tunisia would be historic for the country of just 4m people.

After all, qualification in October was followed by an emergency decree from president Juan Carlos Varela declaring the next day a national holiday. Just imagine what an upset in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday against Gareth Southgates side would prompt.

“Costa Rica were underdogs in Englands group in 2014 but won the group,” Panama midfielder Anibal Godoy told magazine Four Four Two. “Nothing is impossible.”

Roman Torres scored the goal to take Panama to the World Cup (Source: Getty)

Whether they like it or not, Panama have been cast as the plucky underdogs from the outset. Costa Rica beat Uruguay and Italy and drew 0-0 with England before getting past Greece on penalties to reach the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago.

Panamas aims may not be quite as high, but as president Varela recently said, football can help make the country known for more than just the hat, the canal and the Panama Papers scandal.

“The World Cup puts Panama on the map,” he told the Guardian. “The famous Papers was a very specific situation at a specific moment: there was a desire to define the country by that, when Panama is much more than that.”

Despite their 3-0 defeat in Sochi, Panama showed glimpses of their potential against Belgium.

Michael Amir Murillo, New York Red Bulls talented 22-year-old right-back, is fast and direct, and had by far their best chance. With opposite number Yannick Carrasco infield and fast asleep, Murillo got in behind Jan Vertonghen to test Thibaut Courtois.

Midfielder Edgar Joel Barcenas also impressed in bursts, showing an eye for a pass, as well as bite in the tackle. Although Panama showed flashes of creativity, its the second of Barcenass attributes that stood out across each of the 14 players used.

Against the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, its understandable to try to limit time and space on the ball. Panama took this to an extreme, with their physicality seeing them concede 18 fouls and pick up five yellow cards.

The use of fouls to break up play and stop quick counters may be cynical, but it was also effective. They successfully frustrated their opponents, up until Dries Mertens volleyed in a wonder-goal in the 47th minute.

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Michael Amir Murillo nearly scored for Panama against Belgium (Source: Getty)

“We are a very organised team, we play tactically and sometimes our players look a bit tough,” Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez explained post-match. “We never have the intention to be tough, but they are strong men. We do not try to hurt anyone. We have good intentions.”

After Mertens opener, Belgiums quality shone through as De Bruyne and Hazard produced high-quality passes for Lukaku to score twice in six minutes. In the heat and humidity of Sochi, Panama wilted, as Gomez admitted.

“I told them we played with dignity,” he said. “We are not as fit as the European players [but] we will keep growing and learning.”

If they are to avoid defeat by England, they will need to learn from the Belgium game, but also to stick to their game-plan.

Keeping shape in a rigid 4-5-1 formation, with holding midfielder Gabriel Gomez sitting in front of centre-backs Torres and Fidel Escobar, represents their best chance of keeping Englands fluid attack at bay.

Torres – at 99kg, officially the heaviest player at the tournament – and Escobar sat deep against Belgium. The MLS-based duo are in the bottom six for distance covered per 90 minutes at the World Cup; they will defend their 18-yard box and be desperate not to leave space in behind.

Between the dramatic moment of qualification on 11 October and their opening World Cup match, Panama went on a mini tour of Europe. The results suggest England should have far too much for them. While they beat Trinidad 1-0 in between, they failed to score in losses to Norway, Switzerland and Denmark and drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland.

To cause an upset against England they will need a moment similar to what Torres summoned against Costa Rica. Or as assistant manager Edgar Carvajal called it, “something handed down by God”.

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