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Minnows Panama up to task against star-studded Belgium

Panama players train in Sochi on Sunday, in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains © AFP / Adrian DENNIS

SOCHI, Russian Federation, Jun 17Hernan Dario Gomez leads minnows Panama into their World Cup debut on Monday mindful that Iceland’s efforts in holding Argentina have shown that “anything can happen”.

Panama caused a sensation by qualifying for Russia from the CONCACAF zone at the expense of the United States, but they have been handed just about the toughest start imaginable — a star-studded Belgium await in Sochi on Monday evening.

“We are not favourites but if we have a good day anything can happen,” said Gomez, Panama’s veteran Colombian coach who is usually known by his nickname ‘Bolillo’.

While Panama’s squad contains no real household names, and half a dozen players well into their 30s, Roberto Martinez’s Belgians have come to this World Cup with a golden generation led by the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

“The squad is prepared to come up against a team of many carats, and a great coach who is also a great person,” said Gomez.

“They have the best players in the world, except for Messi and Cristiano. Belgium are candidates to win the title, and we are proud to be facing them.”

Iceland followed their run to the quarter-finals at Euro 2016 by holding Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Moscow on Saturday, although they were helped by Lionel Messi’s second-half penalty miss.

Gomez is hoping his side can take inspiration from that performance to claim their first World Cup point in Group G, even if he did not want to compare his group of journeymen with a more experienced Icelandic outfit.

“Iceland qualified ahead of Croatia and did well in the Euros as well, and they were coming up against an Argentina side who are not on the same level as Belgium just now.

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“There is a bigger gulf between Belgium and Panama. Nobody denies they are the favourites, but if we have a good day we can get something.”

Gomez, a former Colombia and Ecuador coach, called on his side to have “warm bodies and cool heads” for their bow on Russia’s Black Sea coast.

The heat and humidity here in southern Russia could help them against Belgium, but their recent record is a source of concern, particularly in front of goal.

The Panamanians scored just nine in 10 qualifiers, and they arrived in Russia after scoring just one goal in their last five matches.

That included a 6-0 defeat at the hands of Switzerland and a 1-0 reverse in Norway 10 days ago. It is a worrying outlook, especially with England to follow next weekend.

“Panama are not a team who score a lot of goals. We are working hard as a team, but we come into the World Cup with problems putting the ball in the net.”

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