Michael O’Neill plays down Panama’s World Cup chances after draw
‘Tournament’s going to be tough for Panama . . . their achievement is in getting there’
Panama and Northern Ireland players following their 0-0 draw at Rommel Fernandez Stadium, Panama City. Photograph: Carlos Lemos/Reuters
Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland side were invited to Panama’s send-off soiree on Tuesday night and though they did not totally spoil the party, they made sure there was no victory for the Panamanians to celebrate prior to their first ever World Cup.
Panama have now drawn with two of the home nations — Wales and Northern Ireland - since November ahead of their June 24th date with Gareth Southgate’s England in their second group game in Russia.
O’Neill knows all about how a smaller country can upset the odds at a major tournament, having led Northern Ireland to the last 16 at Euro 2016, yet following his team’s 0-0 draw he expects England and Belgium to take care of business against Panama.
“There’s always a chance in tournament football (but) I’ll be honest, I would be surprised if England and Belgium don’t beat them,” he said.
“In saying that, tournament football is different. If someone gets off to a bad start, someone gets off to a good start, that second game can always be very, very interesting. You get momentum, you get confidence.
“They’ve had a few difficult games in Europe so they’ve tried to change how they play when they play European teams.
“We’ll see how it goes but it’s going to be a tough ask for them to do anything in terms of coming through the first phase of the tournament.
“They have a great pride playing for their country and I think when you have that you’re capable of producing results. (But) I think England will be too strong, to be honest.
“The tournament’s going to be tough for Panama, there’s no doubt, they’re in a tough group but their achievement is in getting there.
“They’ve everything to gain from being there — they should be very proud that they’ve managed to get there and good luck to them.”
On an extremely humid night in Panama City, the hosts came closest to winning the game when Edgar Joel Barcenas hit the crossbar with a first-half header.
It was Northern Ireland’s first game of a two-match tour and O’Neill was able to hand international debuts to three players as well as experimenting with captain Jonny Evans in central midfield.
“The conditions we were playing in were incredible,” O’Neill noted.
“For the players to have to come at this stage of their season, with the level of preparation we’ve had, you can’t ask for anymore — their heart, their desire.
“Years ago Northern Ireland used to come to places like this, lose the game and it didn’t really matter. It matters to the players now, they don’t want to be beaten.”
Panama have arranged a host of friendlies against European opposition since learning who they would meet at the World Cup so there was a purpose to playing Northern Ireland ahead of facing England.
“Northern Ireland have most of their players playing in England,” midfielder Anibal Godoy explained.
“They have maybe the same feeling. They played the long ball with tall guys, they are always very dangerous from corners and free-kicks.
“This is the football for Panama to try to work on for the World Cup.”