18:00 BST, Wednesday 6 June, Ullevaal Stadion (Oslo, Norway)
Norway will welcome the tiny Central America nation of Panama to Oslo’s Ullevaal Stadion for the final friendly for both sides before the World Cup begins.
For the hosts, however, the game will carry little importance after they failed to qualify for the tournament, making it twenty years since the Norwegian’s made it to the world stage.
The route to Russia wasn’t obstacle-free for either side. When Norway were drawn into a qualifying group with world champions Germany, the task looked more ominous. Joining Norway and the Germans in UEFA’s Group C were Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Azerbaijan and San Marino.
With Germany heavy favourites to take the top automatic spot, second place and a route in through the playoffs was not out of the question. Given the form and on-paper strength of the surrounding sides, the Norwegians will feel slightly aggrieved to have not got closer than a fourth-place finish.
In Panama’s case, though, it’s a very different picture. The tiny Spanish-speaking country will be full of hope, excitement and optimism ahead of their first ever World Cup appearance.
The CONCACAF region is slightly less straightforward than UEFA’s path to the World Cup, with five different qualifying stages.
The Panamanians, given their FIFA ranking, receive an automatic bye to the fourth round of competition: 12 teams are drawn into three groups of four. The top two after six home-and-away fixtures advance to the final stage known as ‘The Hexagonal’.
With the top three automatically going through to the finals, the customary grip of Mexico and the USA on two of those spots often left the rest fighting it out for the final automatic place.
A last-gasp strike from Roman Torres, though, gave Panama a win over Costa Rica. This, coupled with the USA’s shock defeat at Trinidad and Tobago, saw them book their place on the world stage for the first time.
Fans of the Premier League will be familiar with a few names in the Norwegian squad. Having started the weekend win over Iceland on the bench, Bournemouth’s Joshua King and Crystal Palace’s Alexander Sorloth may well return to the starting lineup.
West Ham United fans will also recognise centre half Havard Nordtveit, who left the club at the beginning of the season.
While most will be unfamiliar with the names in the Panama squad, as a team, they are not to be underestimated.
Team spirit and sheer determination got them to this World Cup, and they’ll make sure they’re not just there to make up the numbers.
Star player Ramon Torres, who plies his trade with the Seattle Sounders in the USA’s MLS may well be recalled to the starting XI after playing only 15 minutes in the 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland.
Key Battle: Joshua King (Norway) vs Roman Torres (Panama)
Panama will enter this World Cup as the biggest outsiders.
With a lack of youth, pace and real energy in the side, it is likely that manager Hernan Gomez will have his side playing in a conservative, defensive style.
Typically deploying a 5-4-1, or 4-1-4-1 formation, Panama play a physical game and the pace of King is a threat to the best defences in the land, as he’s proven for club side Bournemouth.
With this being the final game for Panama before the tournament starts, it is to be assumed Gomez will use this fixture to solidify his plans.
Should Torres come back into the fold, he could be in for a tiring evening.
Can Panama adjust to Europe?
Given their geographic location, Panama don’t come to European shores often – much like European nations seldom visit Central America.
In fact, playing most of their fixures in regional competitions, Panama rarely face European opposition at all.
It’s hardly banks worth of data worth to go through, but Panama have never beaten a European side – could that be a worry for boss Gomez ahead of group games with Belgium and England?
Given their lack of exposure to European sides on the continent, it seems strange that they elected to play their first warm up fixture at home to a Northern Ireland side who haven’t qualified.
The change in climate may be a factor, and the short adjustment period may prove costly.
Prediction: Norway 2-0 Panama
The Norwegians are coming into this one off the back of an impressive 2-3 away win over other World Cup first-timers Iceland at the weekend.
The result will give them a much-needed confidence boost, as they will look to carry momentum into the inaugural UEFA Nations League post-World Cup.
For Panama, Europe is usually fruitless. They conceded eight goals in three games in their most recent clashes on the continent with Wales, Denmark and Switzerland.
Norway’s pace will be a solid test for the Panama defence, but if they can figure out a way to nullify the threat, it could give them a chance in two weeks’ time.
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