Novgorod — For once, at a World Cup finals England could enjoy themselves, cut loose, score a bucket-load of goals, and giggle at the fact that Harry Kane’s hat-trick goal that makes him the tournament top goalscorer was a flukey deflection off his heel.
And so the records tumbled: not since the 1966 final have they scored four or more in one World Cup game and Kane becomes only the third Englishman to bag three at the tournament, joining the illustrious company of Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker.
Goodness knows, Panama were awful but too often these kind of games have been a joyless war of attrition for England, decided only when the blow-hards on the other side run out of steam.
The question now ahead of Thursday’s game against Belgium is whether first or second place in the group suits them best. Both nations have identical records at the top of Group G.
Panama are not non-leaguers − there are no big names among them but the team ranked No55 in the world by Fifa have players at good clubs in the United States and Chile and drew with the US in qualification.
There was no question that Panama were a disorganised bunch, and even worse at defending corners where they marshalled the England players with all the grace of a new pub landlord trying to break up his first fight.
England got wise to that quick, with John Stones plundering his first with a header while Panama were consumed with trying to turn Harry Maguire upside down.
There were two first half penalties for Kane, another for Stones and a right foot beauty from Jesse Lingard. There were sharp set-pieces and cool heads as Panama’s players threatened to lose the plot.
In the second half, Gareth Southgate could make changes including Kane who got his third deflecting Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s shot. England controlled the game apart from the set piece that created substitute Felip Baloy’s goal.
The drawing of lots could be used to decide which of England and Belgium wins World Cup Group G if they draw Thursday’s head-to-head in Kaliningrad.
But Gareth Southgate yesterday ruled out trying to finish second deliberately after his side’s 6-1 thrashing of Panama drew them dead level with their closest rivals on points, goal difference and goals scored.
Only their disciplinary records separated England and Belgium, with the former topping the group after accruing two yellow cards to the latter’s three.
If Thursday’s match ends in a draw and England do not pick up more cards than their opponents, the two sides will finish in that order.
If even their disciplinary records cannot be used to separate them then tournament regulations dictate a random draw would decide the group rankings.
Perversely, it could be in each of their interests to finish second given that the side topping the group is scheduled to play the winner of Group E – currently led by Brazil – if both reach the quarter-finals.
The runner-up, meanwhile, is on track to face the winner of Group F – currently led by Mexico, who only need a draw against Sweden to cement that place.
Before the tournament, it was widely expected that group would be won by defending champions Germany – and it might still be.
England would be leading Group G on goal difference had Panama not scored a late consolation on Sunday and Southgate said: “The only downside was the goal at the end.
We wanted to control the group with our goal difference, and we’ve missed out on that opportunity.”
He added of Thursday’s game: “We would want to keep momentum and keep progressing as a team. I’ve heard talk of it being better finishing second, but how do you work all that out, really?
“Let’s go and enjoy it again. It’s nice it’s a game where we’re not up to our neck in pressure.”
England made wholesale changes for their final group game at the last European Championship, a decision that arguably backfired when they then lost to Iceland.
Southgate said: “I think that’s what we’ve got to do over the next 36 hours or so, to decide what our priority is.
“For me, the harmony of the group is high on that list. I think we’ve had good [pre-World Cup] performances against Costa Rica with a different XI who played against Nigeria.
“I have complete trust in all the players. We look a bit different because of the profile of players in certain positions, but I know we’ll get a high level of performance.”
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez announced after his own side thrashed Tunisia on Saturday that he would make “major changes” for Thursday’s game.
Although there is no suggestion either side would do anything this week other than try to win the group, it is not unprecedented for teams to attempt to throw a match if it is in their interest to do so.