02:00 BST, Wednesday 30th May, Estadio Rommel Fernandez Gutierrez (Panama City, Panama)
With three weeks to go until their opener against Belgium in Sochi, World Cup debutants Panama kick off their preparations with a friendly against Northern Ireland in Panama City.
Panama have won just two of the six friendlies they have played since their historic 2-1 victory over Costa Rica that saw them qualify for their first World Cup ahead of the US and coach Hernan Dario Gomez will be hoping to take some momentum into the tournament with victory over Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland.
After the heartbreak of missing out on the finals after a controversial 1-0 playoff defeat to Switzerland, O’Neill will be readying his side for their upcoming Nations League campaign in the autumn and could look to freshen up his aging side after turning down the Scotland job.
With Northern Ireland likely to field a side of predominantly British-based players, Panama may have one eye on their June 24 meeting with England and how they can look to cause them problems as physical underdogs, albeit against a weaker side.
Although coach Gomez used 4-4-2 in that pivotal qualifier against Costa Rica, he could deploy a back five in preparation for their matches against Belgium and England at the World Cup.
They tried this back five against Denmark and Switzerland earlier this year, losing 1-0 and 6-0 respectively, as well as losing 4-0 to the US in their penultimate qualifier, so they will be hoping to solidify ahead of the tournament.
They have dabbled with 4-5-1 as well, but whilst their formation may be difficult to predict, their ageing side will almost certainly look to be solid and physical, and hope to score on the counter.
Northern Ireland Lineup
Michael O’Neill is down to the bare bones, with significant absentees in Chris Brunt, Steven Davies, Oliver Norwood and George Saville, and there could be some new names featuring against Panama.
QPR’s Paul Smyth is an exciting talent and could get his first international start after scoring the winner against South Korea last time out from the bench.
There are five players that could be handed their international debuts, with O’Neill stressing the importance of blooding the next generation.
Crusaders striker Gavin Whyte could be in line for a first cap, as well as 19-year-old Everton striker Shayne Lavery, who is yet to make his senior professional debut, although he was on the Toffees’ bench for the Europa League win over Apollon Limassol in December.
A half each could be given young Celtic keeper Conor Hazard and Leeds stopper Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Recently released former Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson makes up the five players looking for their first caps.
Key Players: Anibal Godoy (Panama) vs Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland)
Experienced midfielder Anibal Godoy is a key man for Hernan Dario Gomez’s side in breaking up play and springing Panama’s counter-attacks and could be an important figure in getting the better of a potentially youthful Northern Irish attack.
A solid performer now in his fourth season in MLS with San Jose Earthquakes, Godoy has already admitted that hopes of achieving much at the World Cup may be slim but he will epitomise the fighting spirit and grit that will be on show from Panama and that will be no different against the Northern Irish.
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With the likes of Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood and George Saville ruled out for Northern Ireland, Sunderland’s Paddy McNair could have a key role in keeping Godoy and Co in check in Panama City.
McNair, known predominantly as a centre-back in his time at Manchester United, has reinvented himself as a midfielder with the Black Cats and was a rare shining light in their season after returning from a cruciate ligament injury, scoring four goals in their last five games.
After appearing for just the final eight minutes of the playoff against Switzerland, McNair could stake a claim for a regular spot in O’Neill’s midfield, with the Nations League now just around the corner.
Will Panama lineup with a back four or five?
Coach Gomez has utilised three different formations in the last year with Panama, and it this game could give a good indication as to how he will set his side up in Russia.
In the final qualifiers against the US and Costa Rica, Gomez selected forward Gabriel Torres alongside the veteran Blas Perez in a 4-4-2, but dropped Torres in friendlies with Denmark and Switzerland in the spring in favour of switching to a 5-4-1 formation.
Can this Panama side provide a proper goal threat?
Despite the remarkable achievement of qualifying for their first finals, this Panama team doesn’t score freely, scoring just one goal in four qualifiers against Mexico and the US.
Striker Blas Perez is a talismanic figure, having scored 43 goals for his country, but at 37 can he provide enough of a goal threat at the finals? His performance against Northern Ireland may provide a decent indicator.
Can Northern Ireland rely on their inexperienced players when the Nations Cup comes around?
Northern Ireland aren’t blessed with the greatest squad depth, as you’d expect for a nation of that size. The likes of Brunt and Davis aren’t going to last forever, so it will be interesting to see how they fare without them on this tour.
Youngsters like Paul Smyth and Shayne Lavery will look to impress alongside stalwarts like Jonny Evans and Josh Magennis.
Prediction: Panama 1-1 Northern Ireland
Both managers are characterised by their ability to squeeze every ounce out of their respective squads, and both compete tigerishly, so this match could be quite a battle.
Panama are a well-drilled side who should be highly motivated, with players desperate to stake a claim for a starting spot in Russia, but Northern Ireland were unlucky not to qualify themselves and should give them a good competitive warmup game, despite being light in numbers.
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