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Fireworks – but little spark – as Panama held to 0-0 draw by Northern Ireland

Panama are heading to their first World Cup, where they will meet Gareth Southgate’s England.


Panama are through to their first World Cup (Nigel French/Empics)

Panama are through to their first World Cup (Nigel French/Empics)

Panama are through to their first World Cup (Nigel French/Empics)

England’s World Cup opponents Panama recorded their second draw with a home nation in seven months by holding Northern Ireland to a stalemate in their farewell friendly.

Having scored a last-gasp equaliser to deny Wales victory in Cardiff last November, the Panamanians, who meet Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions on June 24 in their first ever World Cup, drew 0-0 with a Northern Irish side that missed out on a place in Russia via the play-offs.

Edgar Joel Barcenas came closest to scoring during the first half with a header that came back off the crossbar, with a strong Northern Irish side rarely threatening on a hot and sticky night in Panama City.

Kick-off at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez was delayed by 10 minutes due to the pre-match ceremonies, which included the unfurling of a gigantic Panama flag and a slew of fireworks.

There was even a somewhat tongue-in-cheek banner that claimed Los Canaleros would accrue a maximum nine points in their group, while England were predicted to finish bottom with just a solitary point.

As fanciful as that may be from a Panamanian perspective, they proved they were no pushovers during the opening stages when they hit the woodwork and had an effort cleared off the line.

Lively left winger Barcenas was the one that struck the crossbar with a back-post header, with Adolfo Machado’s weak follow-up effort sent away by Aaron Hughes.

The loudest roar of the night came when Jose Luis Rodriguez left Stuart Dallas on his backside, but that move culminated in Anibal Godoy’s flick being easily collected by Trevor Carson.

Despite being a World Cup tune-up, there was no sign of either team holding back. Northern Irish skipper Jonny Evans, operating in a midfield role, was one of those to feel the force of a Panamanian tackle, and Michael O’Neill must have been glad this was not one of their warm-up games for Russia.

Further fireworks followed, but only during another display prior to a second half which saw Panama make four chances and O’Neill bring on Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell for his international debut.

It was no surprise that the pace slowed in such great humidity and neither Peacock-Farrell nor Panama stopper Jose Calderon had anything to do for the opening 20 minutes of the second period.

When Calderon was called into action he was equal to it, beating away a near-post effort from Josh Magennis after Liam Boyce had seized on a loose pass.

The noise inside the stadium grew again when Ismael Diaz entered the box via a one-two with fellow substitute Blas Perez, yet Aaron Hughes, winning his 111th cap, diverted the shot behind.

With 14 minutes to go, the local hero Ramon Torres, the man whose goal sent Panama to the World Cup, emerged from the bench to wild applause and screams.

That had barely died down by the time the unmistakable centre-back reached a near-post corner with a thumping header in the 82nd minute that narrowly went over Peacock-Farrell’s crossbar.

Jordan Thompson and Everton’s Shayne Lavery came on to bring the number of Northern Ireland debutants up to three but it was Peacock-Farrell who made the most meaningful contribution with a routine save from Ricardo Avila.