Belfast Telegraph

Paddy McNair and four other talking points from Northern Ireland's draw with Panama

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland drew 0-0 with Panama last night in the Estadio Rammel Fernandez - but what were the main talking points to take from the game?

Paul Ferguson was there - here's his take on the first game of Northern Ireland's Central American tour:

1. Panama's spectacular farewell party

The Panamanians know how to throw a going away party.

Their heroes are playing in their first ever World Cup finals when they travel to Russia next month and they were determined to give them a memorable send-off.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 29th May 2018 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye A band plays before Wednesday nights International Friendly with Panama and Northern Ireland at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Panama City.

You had to be there to believe it inside the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

Think Las Vegas mixed in with the razzmatazz of the Super Bowl.

It was a truly spectacular event with the passionate and emotional Panama fans, decked out in their red national team shirts, adding an amazing atmosphere to proceedings. 

No expense was spared as we were treated to three separate firework displays, a rock concert at half time, a full scale marching band and the unravelling of Panama's national flag that nearly took up the fully length of the pitch. Banners and streamers brought sensational colour to proceedings.

There were mixed gender cheerleaders at half time while the families of the players stood with them for the anthem, which of course was sung with great gusto by the capacity crowd and a live singer.

The football actually got the in the way of a great party and one thing is for sure – the  Panamanians are immensely proud their team are going to the World Cup. I can only imagine the party they would want to throw should they actually pick up a win in Russia.

2. Paddy McNair outstanding in midfield

Come September and the start of the inaugural Nations League, Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill may face a midfield conundrum.

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Paddy McNair was Northern Ireland's stand-out player against Panama.

Paddy McNair, with his man of the match performance on Tuesday night in Panama, has certainly staked his claim for a placed in the middle of the park.

And on last night's evidence it will be hard to dislodge him. He produced a terrific performance with his surging runs, neat passing, strong tackles and combative nature. Paddy was constantly looking to get involved in the action and it's no surprise that he scored four goals in Sunderland's last five games.

Paddy is so versatile, especially as a defender, but he's argued for sometime that he would like to be playing in midfield. O'Neill will agree and it just adds to the depth at his disposal in midfield when captain Steven Davis, George Saville and Ollie Norwood return along with Corry Evans.

Gareth McAuley was outstanding but McNair gets the nod ahead of Big G for the man of the match award.

3. Can Panama shock England?

Panama will play with plenty of passion, desire and aggression but it's unlikely to be enough for them to spring a surprise in Russia.

England, when they face Panama in their second World Cup group game, shouldn't have any trouble against the Central American nation while Belgium, in their opening match, could score a high number of goals against them.

Panama are a team who like to attack but, as proven on occasions last night, they can be caught out when they press high and they have the oldest squad at the tournament. Individual errors will cost them dear too and be exploited.

Against European sides in recent international friendlies Panama have played in a more defensive formation, ready to hit teams on the counter attack but against England they may not see much of the ball.

They also need to be careful when it comes to discipline. They became frustrated last night and tried to dish out their own justice. That will not be tolerated in Russia.

But to stand a chance of causing an upset they must keep XI players on the park and hope England or Belgium have a terrible match. Then leave it up to big Ramon Torres to score the winner from a set piece header.

4. Giving youth a chance

Northern Ireland had four players on the pitch in Panama City who were playing for the under-21s four months ago.

Three players, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery were handed their senior international debuts on Tuesday night while little Paul Smyth earned his second cap.

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Panama's Roman Torres with Northern Ireland's Shayne Lavery

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill wanted to integrate these players into his side and Panama provided excellent opposition for him to do that. It wasn't until the second half that he felt able to do this but none of the four youngsters looked out of place. Paul Smyth was constantly trying to run at his full back and even we he was thwarted, he never stopped trying.

Leeds United's young keeper Peacock-Farrell looked assured in goals when he took over from Motherwell's Trevor Carson while there is plenty of promise from Thompson and Lavery.

But there was also an opportunity for the fringe players of the squad to get a run out and Ryan McLaughlin, Shane Ferguson  and Lee Hodson all coped admirably.

5. Northern Ireland fans are just as proud as Panamanians

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 29th May 2018 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland fans during Wednesday nights International Friendly against Panama at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Panama City.

Over 100 Northern Ireland fans were in attendance inside the Estadio Rommel Fernandez and they were determined to join in the party.

Reaching Panama and this two match Central American tour is certainly not cheap, likely to cost in the region of £3,000 when you factor in 10 days of expenses. But the diehard fans roared on the men in green from their small section surrounded by a sea of red. And then when the match was over they could be found in bars close to ground celebrating and joining in the fun with the Panamanians.

The Northern Ireland players made sure they acknowledged the fans at full time and will now hope their support can inspire them to an even better performance against Costa Rica on Sunday.

Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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