MOSCOW (AP) – For an England team that came to the World Cup with reduced expectations, things are setting up nicely.
The younger, friendlier squad – a minor dust-up with the media notwithstanding – began with a 2-1 win over Tunisia on a late header by Harry Kane, who also scored the team’s first goal. England now faces Panama, which is playing in its first-ever World Cup and looked overmatched in a 3-0 opening loss to Belgium.
A match with mighty Belgium and gifted Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku looms to conclude group play. But England could take the pressure off by beating Panama, a result that would guarantee a spot in the second round.
England is familiar with losing to underdogs, having been eliminated by Iceland in the 2016 European Championship. Coach Gareth Southgate has warned against getting too “comfortable.”
There’s another similarity between Iceland and Panama that should enter into England’s preparation. Panama defender Adolfo Machado specializes in long, looping throw-ins to set up goals, just as Iceland midfielder Aron Gunnarsson did in the match that former national team player Alan Shearer called “the worst performance I have ever seen from an England team. Ever.”
English fans are accustomed to disappointment in soccer’s biggest tournament, no matter how many talented Premier League players suit up for the national team. The Three Lions were eliminated in the group stage in Brazil four years ago and haven’t reached the World Cup semifinals since 1990.
Southgate turned the page on England’s “golden generation” in a bid to revitalize the squad. Nine players made their World Cup debuts against Tunisia, and over half the team is 25 or younger.
Panama, for its part, has played the role of a team happy to be here. Coach Hernan Gomez was characteristically blunt in assessing the team’s performance against Belgium, calling the 3-0 loss a good result.
“It should have been worse,” he said.
England faces Panama at 3 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT, 1200 GMT) in Nizhny Novgorod.
Here’s a look at Sunday’s other matches:
JAPAN VS. SENEGAL
6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT, 1500 GMT)
The teams enter Saturday’s match in Yekaterinburg coming off surprising 2-1 wins – Japan over Colombia and Senegal over Poland. That means the winner would be in good shape to advance past the group stage, and a draw could end up benefiting either or both.
Japan became the first Asian team to beat a team from South America in the World Cup, and Senegal is one of two African teams with victories so far in the tournament. Nigeria is the other.
Japan is an experienced team – the nation has qualified for the past six World Cups – that could be at full strength against Senegal. Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki was a substitute against Colombia, but may be fit to start after recovering from a right calf strain.
“We need to be able to play to our full potential rather than being reactive to the opposition’s strength,” coach Akira Nishino said.
Senegal’s charismatic, 42-year-old coach, Aliou Cisse, became an Internet darling after his fist-pumping celebration and emphatic sideline gestures during the win over Poland. Cisse was captain of Senegal when it reached the 2002 quarterfinals in the nation’s only previous World Cup appearance.
He also made news by arguing forcefully that international soccer needs more black coaches. He is the only black coach at this World Cup.
Senegal’s defense will look to stifle Japan’s attack as it did against Poland. The team also hopes to get more scoring opportunities from Liverpool forward Sadio Mane.
POLAND VS. COLOMBIA
9 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT, 1800 GMT)
Poland is eighth in the FIFA rankings, Colombia is 16th – and both face the prospect of an early World Cup exit when they meet in Kazan.
The tournament couldn’t have started much worse for Colombia. Carlos Sanchez received a red card in the third minute against Japan, forcing his team to play nearly the entire match a man down.
Authorities in Colombia have said they are investigating a death threat made against Sanchez on social media. The ominous message referenced Andres Escobar, who was shot and killed days after returning to Colombia from the 1994 World Cup, where he scored an own-goal in a loss to the host United States.
Radamel Falcao – Colombia’s leading all-time scorer who missed the World Cup four years ago because of an injury – understands the stakes of Sunday’s match.
“It will be like a final,” he said.
Poland’s top all-time scorer, Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich, has his own designs on controlling play after Poland was let down by its defense against Senegal.
“I think we didn’t take enough risks,” Lewandowski said. “Against Colombia … we will play differently and better.”
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