Harry Kane’s hat-trick inspired England to their biggest ever World Cup win as Gareth Southgate’s men sealed progress to the last 16 with a 6-1 demolition of Panama that puts their rivals on notice.
Things finally appear to be looking up for an England side who were humiliated by Iceland at Euro 2016 and eliminated with a game to spare at the 2014 World Cup.
They secured progress to the knockout phase with a thrilling World Cup win that will live long in the memory as Kane’s hat-trick complemented John Stones’ brace and a Jesse Lingard stunner against shambolic Panama.
Substitute Felipe Baloy netted the Central Americans’ first ever goal at the finals but it could not take the gloss off a Three Lions win which was as comprehensive as it was impressive, setting up an intriguing shoot-out with Belgium for top spot on Thursday – a match Roberto Martinez’s men will surely enter with increased trepidation.
After displaying their character to seal a last-gasp win against Tunisia, England kept a cool head to deal with Panama’s rough-house tactics in sweltering Nizhny Novgorod, emphatically adding the clinical edge Southgate had called for after Monday’s game.
Stones headed home his first two international goals in an opening period which saw Kane smash home two spot-kicks and Lingard curl home from the edge of the penalty area.
England made light work of a Panama side focused on unsettling rather than outplaying them, with captain Kane becoming his country’s third player to score a World Cup finals hat-trick when the ball went in off him early in the second half.
Baloy made history late on but it did not take the edge off a victory to cherish – just the third time the Three Lions had won their opening two World Cup games.
Panama got what they deserved for a pitiful display against an England side showing just one change, despite assistant Steve Holland’s training notes suggesting otherwise.
Gabriel Gomez’s elbow on Lingard within two minutes gave Southgate’s side an indication of the brutish challenge facing them, while Anibal Godoy snatched at an early attempt at the other end.
But there would be precious few chances – and even less goodwill – after Panama’s tactics cost them in the eighth minute.
Kane was dragged to the deck from a corner as they employed grappling techniques UFC fighters would be proud of, but Hernan Dario Gomez’s side forgot to mark Stones and the Manchester City centre-back headed home his first international goal.
Edgar Barcenas led the Central Americans’ attempts to level but England out-thought a side more interested in out-fighting them.
Kieran Trippier, again impressing at right-back, clipped a lovely ball to Lingard who was bundled to the deck by Fidel Escobar. Panama resorted to gamesmanship to put Kane off the penalty, but his finish into the top corner could hardly have been sweeter.
Los Canaleros tried to run through and reduce the deficit as England celebrated, but referee Ghead Grisha was having none of it – and they were soon further behind.
Lingard added a sumptuous third, collecting a loose ball in the 36th minute and playing a smart one-two with Raheem Sterling before bending home an outstanding effort.
England showed no mercy and a smart set-piece routine saw Jordan Henderson clip a first-time ball over to Kane, whose header across goal was met by Sterling. When his initial effort was stopped, Stones was on hand to net.
With half-time approaching England became the fifth team in World Cup history to score five or more in the opening period. Kane was dragged to the deck by Godoy and took delight in firing home the resulting spot-kick.
Roman Torres and Harry Maguire clashed heads just before the break, where the Panama captain led half-time crisis talks in the centre circle.
Head coach Gomez went to Southgate’s dugout before a second half that started at a far calmer tempo – not that the pain would stop for Panama.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, in for the injured Dele Alli, took aim with a shot that went in off Kane’s heel, with the VAR giving the green light for that hat-trick after checking for offside.
Henderson volleyed just wide, but Panama were looking to make history, with Michael Murillo and Torres having attempts before Baloy slid in to direct home a free-kick.
‘Football’s coming home’ rang out at the final whistle, with Southgate forgetting his dislocated shoulder to celebrate wildly with England’s travelling support.