Belfast Telegraph

Panama an experience NI's crop of young stars won't forget

Panama 0 N Ireland 0

By Paul Ferguson

The Panama players' lap of honour prior to the game makes sense now.

It seemed odd at the time - soaking up the unbridled adulation of a passionate capacity crowd inside the Estadio Rommel Fernandez before a ball had even been kicked in earnest against Northern Ireland.

At the final whistle, though, after Michael O'Neill's side had secured a battling 0-0 draw, an air of deflation suddenly enveloped the 48-year-old stadium.

It lasted only a few minutes but, in the shadow of Panama boxing legend Roberto Duran's own arena in the capital city, it appeared as though they'd taken a quick punch to the solar plexus.

It must have been what they feared in sending the players out to a standing ovation before kick-off and a backhanded compliment to Northern Ireland's standing now in world football.

This was Panama's party night - a chance to say farewell to their heroes in the most flamboyant way possible as they set off on their odyssey to Russia via Norway for their first ever World Cup finals.

They certainly gave their idols a memorable send-off, with firework displays, a marching band with drum major, rock singers on stage, DJs blaring out music, giant banners, an all-day street party outside the stadium, cheerleaders - including a dog on the pitch - and every single fan appearing to be wearing the red replica shirt of the national team. Even their television presenters sported them live on air.

But O'Neill was never sticking to the script.

With at least 10 regular Northern Ireland internationals unavailable to him, O'Neill was forced to reshuffle his pack in terms of team selection, but he opted not to throw any of his young guns into the cauldron of fire from the start with Trevor Carson earning his second cap in goals, Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart as a back three, Stuart Dallas and Shane Ferguson operating in the wing-back positions and Jonny Evans, his brother Corry and Paddy McNair in midfield. Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis led the attack.

Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez - the Colombian who is taking his third country to the World Cup finals - didn't start his two key players Roman Torres and Blas Perez, instead preferring to give 19-year-old Jose Luis Rodriguez his debut and allowing Edgar Barcenas to take centre stage.

The Panamanians hoped their visitors would be bit part players in this farewell production, but within the first few minutes of the match - which was delayed by 10 minutes because of all the festivities - O'Neill's men indicated that they were in no mood to blend into the background with robust challenges from Jonny Evans and defensive rock McAuley.

It set the tone for the game and Panama soon responded by raising their physical play.

Northern Ireland escaped twice in the 18th minute when the exciting Barcenas rose above Corry Evans to hammer the ball against the bar. The rebound fell to defender Adolfo Machado, who directed it towards the net only for Hughes to clear off the line.

Boyce felt he should have been awarded a penalty after appearing to be pushed when attempting to get his head on the end of a Magennis long throw into the box, but Costa Rican referee Henry Bejarano was not at all interested in penalising Panama, with Luis Tejada claiming that the former Cliftonville striker had dived.

The hosts seemed to become extremely frustrated and irate thereafter, and Anibal Godoy should have been booked for a nasty challenge on Jonny Evans in the centre of the park, leaving the West Brom man in a heap and nursing a sore head.

After Dallas had a couple of efforts blocked, Carson had to be alert at his near post five minutes from half-time to keep out a blistering drive from youngster Rodriguez.

As is customary with international friendlies these days, the second half was all about a raft of substitutions.

Panama made three at the interval, while it was a proud moment for 21-year-old Leeds United keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who was given his debut and 45 minutes to impress when he replaced Carson.

During the second period, O'Neill had four players - Peacock-Farrell, Paul Smyth, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery - on the pitch who were playing Under-21 football in March.

Thompson and Lavery joined Peacock-Farrell in making their senior debuts, while Smyth earned his second cap. Ryan McLaughlin saw international action for the first time since March 2015 and Lee Hodson made his 23rd appearance.

O'Neill wanted to see how his youngsters would cope in an international arena and, apart from a few nervous touches, they performed admirably.

With the intense heat, the changes were necessary, but it says a great deal about the fitness levels of 38-year-olds McAuley and Hughes that they played the entire game and were so solid, while Cathcart's positional play was outstanding.

Half chances fell for both sides during the second period with Northern Ireland's final ball disappointing after great build-up play usually involving Corry Evans, Dallas and Boyce.

Peacock-Farrell really only had one save to make from Ricardo Avila, while home favourite Torres, finally introduced from the bench, flashed a header over the bar from a corner.

From Panama's perspective, this match was about giving their players a memorable send off and preparing them for their World Cup matches next month against Belgium, Tunisia and England.

O'Neill viewed it as a worthwhile exercise in blooding some new talent into his squad in an intense environment ahead of the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers.

And it gave the Northern Ireland youngsters a memory that they will likely never experience again - unless they don the pads, change sports and make it to the Super Bowl.

Panama: Calderon, Machado, Baloy (R Torres, 76 mins), Escobar, Ovalle, Gomez (Pimentel, 46 mins), Barcenas, Godoy (Avila, 46 mins), Cooper (Camargo, 46 mins), J Rodriguez (Nurse, 60 mins), Tejada (Perez, 46 mins). Unused subs: A Rodriguez, Murillo, Cummings, R Torres, Arroyo, Diaz.

Northern Ireland: Carson (Peacock-Farrell, 46 mins), Ferguson (Smyth, 72 mins), J Evans, McAuley, Hughes, C Evans (Thompson, 82 mins), McNair, Cathcart, Boyce (R McLaughlin, 72 mins), Dallas (Hodson, 59 mins), Magennis (Lavery, 88 mins). Unused subs: Whyte, Hazard, McCullough, McCartan.

Referee: Henry Bejarano (Costa Rica)

Man of the match: Paddy McNair

Match rating: 5/10

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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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