One of two teams who will be making their World Cup debut this summer, Panama sealed qualification in the most dramatic of styles to exorcise the ghosts of their near-miss four years ago.
A late win over Costa Rica – featuring a hugely controversial “ghost goal” – sealed third spot in the fifth round of CONCACAF qualifying and ensured Panama’s passage to Russia at the expense of the United States, who had denied the Canal Men an inter-confederation play-off spot in 2013.
Success for Panama is simply reaching a World Cup tournament and little is expected of the Central American country in Russia, particularly given their difficult group draw.
Panama’s opening match is against Belgium on Monday 18 June in Sochi, which is followed by an encounter with England in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday 24 June. Hernan Dario Gomez’s side could feasibly already be eliminated by the time they face Tunisia in Saransk on Thursday 28 June.
Rank outsiders with the bookmakers, Panama only need to look to the performances of Costa Rica – who were widely written off before the tournament had begun – in 2014 for inspiration.
An ageing squad, an unconvincing qualification campaign and some disappointing pre-World Cup friendly results, however, suggest Fantasy managers ought to be giving the Panama squad a wide berth.
Road to Qualification
Panama entered CONCACAF qualification at the fourth-round stage, qualifying from the four-team group with a game to spare and finishing runners-up to Costa Rica, who beat them twice en route to the “Hexagonal”.
Luis Tejada was the only Panama player to register more than one goal in this stage, with one of his two strikes coming from the penalty spot.
The “Hex” began in positive fashion for Panama, who emerged from their tricky opening-day encounter in Honduras with all three points thanks to Fidel Escobar’s superb free-kick.
A subsequent six-match winless run, featuring four draws and 1-0 defeats to Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico, would surely have put paid to Panama’s automatic qualification hopes had the US and Honduras not also been in middling form.
A 3-0 home win over Trinidad and Tobago preceded a morale-sapping 4-0 defeat to the US in Panama’s penultimate fixture, which looked to have scuppered Los Canaleros’ chances for good.
That now infamous last-gasp win over Costa Rica, coupled with the USA’s surprise 2-1 defeat in Trinidad, sealed the third CONCACAF qualifying place in memorable fashion and condemned Honduras to a play-off against Australia, which they subsequently lost. The US meanwhile failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Coach Gomez largely favoured a 4-4-2 during the qualification campaign, although a more defensive 5-4-1/4-5-1 has been preferred in recent friendlies.
Whichever formation is decided upon, there is no doubt that Panama will be content to sit back and defend against their World Cup group opponents and try to attack on the break.
Two of Panama’s goals in the 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago came from swift counter-attacks, with Gabriel Torres’ opener a stunning 80-yard solo run that stemmed from an opposition corner.
Panama scored at a rate of 0.9 goals per match in the “Hex” (only bottom side Trinidad and Tobago scored fewer goals) and their limited attack is not one that will particularly appeal to Fantasy managers.
The World Cup debutants were, in fact, the only nation to qualify for this summer’s tournament to finish with a negative goal difference in their group campaign.
The heavy defeat to the US and a 6-0 thrashing by Switzerland in March suggests that Panama’s defence is far from watertight, either.
CONCACAF Fifth Round
Most starts: Luis Ovalle, Anibal Godoy (9), Jaime Penedo, Gabriel Gomez, Roman Torres (8), Adolfo Machado, Edgar Barcenas (7), Fidel Escobar, Armando Cooper, Blas Perez, Gabriel Torres (6)
Most goals: Blas Perez, Roman Torres (2)
Most assists: Anibal Godoy (2)
Star player Alberto Quintero, who made nine appearances and recorded two assists in qualification, has been forced to pull out of Panama’s 23-man squad after suffering a foot injury in the 6 June friendly against Norway.
Panama haven’t won any of their six friendlies contested in the three most recent international breaks, losing to Iran, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway and drawing with Wales and Northern Ireland.
Though Panama have won two other friendly internationals against Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago since October, their squads in both these matches were made up of second-string players.
The Key Targets
To be brutally honest: none. All of the below should effectively be reclassified as “long shots”, as the inclusion of any Panama player in our Fantasy teams would be a speculative punt at best.
Blas Perez (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is perhaps favourite to get the nod up front if Gomez persists with a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1, having started Panama’s last three qualification matches and his country’s 6 June friendly against Norway.
The 37-year-old striker is Panama’s joint-top scorer (with 43 goals) of all time, along with Luis Tejada (£5.6m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA).
Neither Perez or Tejada, who is a veteran himself at 36 years old, have scored since Panama secured World Cup qualification.
Gabriel Torres (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), who scored a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Wales last November, seems to be the sacrificial lamb in Gomez’s switch from 4-4-2 to a more defensive shape. Torres’ speed could be useful on the counter, however: witness his incredible breakaway goal in the 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago last September.
Roman Torres (£5.4m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) has ten goals in 111 appearances for the national side and represents Panama’s main goal threat from defence.
Torres scored the winner in that crucial victory over Costa Rica and was also on target late on in the 2-2 draw with Honduras earlier in the qualification campaign.
With goalkeepers receiving save points in both Fantasy iTeam and McDonald’s FIFA, veteran custodian Jaime Penedo (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) could be a cheap source of points – particularly if deploying the Bench Boost chip in McDonald’s FIFA – in fixtures against Belgium and England.
Areas to Avoid
Penedo and any bench-filling fodder aside, there will likely be little investment in Panama assets for their opening two group encounters with Belgium and England.
Though we’ve name-dropped three Panama forwards (Perez, Gabriel Torres and Tejada) in the Key Targets section, the Canal Men’s attack looks particularly anaemic.
Panama scored less than a goal per game during the “Hex” and haven’t found the net in their four international friendlies against European opposition in 2018.
A 6-0 defeat against Switzerland in March is also enough to deter serious investment in Panama’s defence, despite budget-friendly Fantasy options such as the shot-happy Fidel Escobar (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) and long throw specialist Adolfo Machado (£5.3m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) to be found in their squad.
Expect plenty of yellow and possibly red cards too: the Panamanians are fond of a tackle or two.
Fantasy Football Scout is supporting Fantasy iTeam, a free World Cup game available on a number of mobile devices, including iPhone, iPad, iPodTouch and Android. We have an official Fantasy Football Scout League open to UK users only, with a £1000 of Amazon vouchers to give out, split between the top three performers. There’s also the small matter of £10k worth of prizes available in the main competitions: Overall World Championship and Manager of the Gameround.
Click here for details and here to sign up.
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World Cup Data
We’re delighted to offer World Cup data as an early addition to our regular season offering to help those playing Fantasy games over the summer.
We’ve secured Opta data, not only for the tournament itself, which begins on June 14 but also from the Qualifying Rounds for Europe and South America and for international friendlies involving the participating nations. This includes all the matches played right up to the tournament kick-off.
Just to stress, this World Cup offering comes packaged with the regular Fantasy Football Scout membership.
Check out this new trailer previewing the World Cup content below…