England, injured coach want no more surprises against Panama
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — England's players have been taken by surprise once this week. They don't want a second shock on Sunday against the World Cup first-timers from Panama.
The squad members were taken aback when they got to a team meeting on Thursday to find coach Gareth Southgate with his right arm in a sling after a fall while out jogging on his own the day before.
The damage? A dislocated shoulder. The response from the players?
"As always, they were probably quite amused," Southgate said.
This squad, one of the youngest at the tournament, is a fresh start for England, which has a more relaxed approach under Southgate . It can't be light-hearted against Panama, though, because of the danger of an embarrassing upset.
For all the might of the Premier League, England hasn't reached the semifinals of a World Cup since 1990 — nearly 30 years ago. England was knocked out in the group stage four years ago in Brazil.
Southgate's response has been to invest in youth in an attempt to revitalize, almost re-boot, England. There were nine World Cup debutants for England in the 2-1 win over Tunisia to open its World Cup in Russia. Over half the squad is 25 or younger.
The new approach from Southgate appears simple: Stay positive and enjoy yourself, even in times of trouble. Even with a dislocated shoulder.
"He joked about it, put it in the funniest way possible," teenage defender Trent Alexander-Arnold said of Southgate and his injury. "He tried to put a smile on everyone's face."
The game against Panama is different.
For the first time in a while, the youngsters will feel expectation weighing down on them. Partly because of the dogged performance against Tunisia that was rewarded with a late winner from captain Harry Kane.
But mainly because Panama is such an underdog.
In its first game at the World Cup, Panama lost 3-0 to the highly-rated Belgium team after holding the Belgians 0-0 through the first half. Panama coach Hernan Gomez interpreted that scoreline as a victory for the Central Americans.
"The difference between Belgium and Panama in football is greater than three goals," Gomez said. "Some people may say that three goals is a lot, but honestly, three goals against the team we played against today, taking into consideration our experience ... it should have been worse."
In the buildup to Panama, England will be reminded of its elimination at the hands of tiny Iceland at the European Championship two years ago. Southgate said his team should ensure it doesn't get "comfortable."
ENGLAND'S OTHER INJURY
The only effect Southgate's right shoulder should have on England is to limit the coach's sideline celebrations .
But there is another injury in the camp. Midfielder Dele Alli hurt his thigh against Tunisia and appears set to be replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek against Panama. That will give England the chance to showcase more young talent, with the 22-year-old Loftus-Cheek a rising star.
England could also drop forward Raheem Sterling and replace him with Marcus Rashford — if a much-hyped photograph of a piece of paper with a supposed team list being held by an assistant coach is to be believed.
Bizarrely, Panama's age is as much of a factor as the team's inexperience in major tournaments. The country's World Cup debut came too late for many of its top players. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo is 36, midfielder Gabriel Gomez is 34, Blas Perez is 37 and his fellow forward Luis Tejada is 36.
One thing Panama's team has resolved, they said, is the emotion of playing at the World Cup following the thrilling success in qualifying.
"We already know what it's like," midfielder Gomez said. "We already played our first game, already let out all the emotions."
Gerald Imray is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP