19:00 GMT, Thursday 22nd March, Brondby Stadion (Brondby, Denmark)
International football is back for 2018 as countries shape up their sides for the World Cup in Russia this summer. You would have got fairly good odds on backing both Denmark and Panama qualifying for this summer’s tournament, with the Danes missing out four years ago and Panama reaching the finals for the first time in their history this year.
In preparation for the World Cup, Panama may have played it perfectly. It may look safe to play Denmark, Switzerland, Northern Ireland and Norway ahead of the tournament in just three months’ time, but it is vital they take confidence to Russia.
With a group containing Belgium, England and Tunisia, they could repeat Costa Rica’s success of four years ago, with both the heavyweights of Belgium and England more than capable of slipping up on the big stage.
As for Denmark, having only qualified for the World Cup in November, now is the opportunity for coach Age Hareide to start moulding his team. Warm-ups of Chile, Sweden and Mexico are to come, giving Denmark winnable but not straight-forward fixtures, so perhaps the clash against Panama provides the coach with the best chance to experiment.
Last time out
Republic of Ireland 1-5 Denmark (World Cup qualification playoff second leg)
After a 0-0 draw in Copenhagen, Ireland would have been the more confident of the two sides as they returned to Dublin. The Irish kept Christian Eriksen quiet in the first leg, but they couldn’t repeat the trick second time round.
Denmark fell behind after Shane Duffy got on the end of a long free kick, but after weathering an Irish storm, the Danes showed their quality. Andreas Christensen levelled thing up with a poke goalwards, going in the net from a combination of the post and Irish defender Cyrus Christie.
Star man Eriksen then flexed his muscles three superb strikes, two from outside the box, to take Denmark to the World Cup. Nicklas Bendtner then rounded off the win with a penalty in stoppage time.
If Eriksen is giving space he can be destructive, and Panama and future opponents must be sure not to give the Spurs midfielder any time on the ball. At the age of 26, he looks to be entering the World Cup at his peak.
Wales 1-1 Panama (International friendly)
Panama travelled to Wales in November, perhaps in preparation for facing in England the World Cup this summer. Both teams experimented with their sides, with Wales giving a host of youngsters a run-out after failing to qualify for this summer’s tournament.
Wales edged things on quality, but their lack of experience perhaps prevented them from seeing out the victory. Liverpool starlet Tom Lawrence bagged a superb solo effort for the hosts after Jaime Penedo had saved Sam Vokes’ penalty in the first half. The visitors kept themselves in the game, and Armando Cooper popped up in the third minute of stoppage time after a neat one-two to steal a result for Panama.
It was the kind of performance you will expect Panama to use at the World Cup this summer, looking to soak up the pressure of their performances. Considering a number of experienced players were absent, a draw to Euro 2016 semifinalists Wales was a fantastic result for the World Cup debutants.
Denmark are without defenders Andreas Bjelland and Jannik Vestergaard, meaning Age Hareide will need to mix up his back four. Andreas Christensen was deployed at right back against the Republic of Ireland but expect him to partner captain Simon Kjaer this time around.
Young star Kasper Dolberg is also ruled out with injury, so Nicolai Jorgensen should lead the line with Pione Sisto and either the more creative Viktor Fischer or direct Yussuf Poulsen on the flanks.
Panama have a fully fit squad to choose from, and against a superior Denmark side, expect coach Hernan Dario Gomez to pick close to full strength lineup. Watch out for the 37-year-old Blas Perez, who could come off the bench as he has 43 international goals to his name.
Key battle: Christian Eriksen (Denmark) vs Gabriel Gomez (Panama)
After his hat trick against Republic of Ireland, all eyes will be on Christian Eriksen. The ‘smaller’ nations at World Cups tend to be built around one player, and there is no doubt Eriksen is the heartbeat of this Danish side.
The experienced Gabriel Gomez is likely to be the man tasked with the job of keeping Eriksen quiet, with the defensive midfielder holding just the 140 caps at international level. In order to perform close to a man mark job on Eriksen, Panama coach Gomez could tweak his usual 4-4-2 formation.
Ring rust for Panama?
Since qualifying for the World Cup, Panama thumped Grenada 5-0 before falling to Iran 2-1 and then stealing that draw against Wales. Results aren’t vital at this moment in time, but they need to show a bit more conviction with just four games to go before the Russia 2018.
Against a Denmark team that will zip the ball around and then whip balls into the box, Panama will need to provide their best performance in the past few months in order to maintain momentum this summer.
Denmark look to get off to perfect start
Denmark didn’t have the luxury of the friendlies back in November, with the small matter of their World Cup playoff against the Republic of Ireland needing to be dealt with. Now comes the first opportunity for Hareide to play around with his team ahead of finals this summer.
With tougher friendly contests against Chile, Sweden and Mexico to come, it is highly important for Denmark to record a victory, but also a strong performance. If Hareide can achieve this whilst giving evaluating the fringe players in his squad, it will be a perfect night in Brondby.
Competition for places
This is the final round of friendlies before World Cup coaches will pick their provisional squads for Russia. Expect plenty of substitutions, and with so little time before the tournament, it could just take one moment of brilliance to secure a player his seat on the plane.
Prediction: Denmark 2-0 Panama
Denmark have the undoubted quality, and a 2-0 victory is the minimum we can expect from this game. If they were to field a first-choice lineup, they could run away with the fixture like they did against Ireland, but in friendlies where there are unlimited substitutions, games can become disjointed, which would play into Panama’s hands.
How will these teams fair at the World Cup? Let us know in the comments section below.