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By Andrew Cawthorne
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia, June 24 (Reuters) - England’s young and free-flowing team banished the ghost of past national failures with a record 6-1 thrashing of feeble Panama on Sunday that included a hat-trick by Harry Kane and eased them into the last 16.
England’s biggest-ever World Cup win, featuring two penalties by Kane then a fortuitous deflection off his heel, also guaranteed Belgium’s berth in the next round.
“Not many players score a hat-trick at a World Cup, so I’m proud of it. We had fun out there too,” said Kane calling his third “one of the luckiest goals of my life.”
Ahead of their meeting on Thursday to decide who tops Group G, England and Belgium are level on points, goal difference and goals scored.
Sunday’s game at a pulsating Nizhny Novgorod stadium left the shell-shocked Central Americans out of their debut tournament with nine goals conceded. It also eliminated Tunisia.
Playing from the off with an ease and trickery that contrasted with the stressed-looking England flops of recent international tournaments, Gareth Southgate’s team romped into a remarkable 5-0 lead at halftime.
Defender John Stones headed England in front in the eighth minute from a corner, losing his marker to angle home, before captain Kane made it 2-0 in the 22nd minute with a penalty after Jesse Lingard was pushed in the box by Fidel Escobar.
Lingard made it 3-0 in the 36th minute with a beautiful strike from just outside the area before Stones nodded in his second and England’s fourth from a cleverly worked free kick routine. Kane scored another penalty just before halftime.
The in-form Tottenham striker bagged his third after a 61st minute shot by Ruben Loftus-Cheek hit his foot and bounced over despairing Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
Current World Cup top scorer on five goals after two games, Kane was then substituted, to an ovation from the nearly 2,500 England fans. He has scored all five of his shots on target.
Kane became the third England player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup game following Geoff Hurst in the 1966 final and Gary Lineker against Poland in the 1986 tournament.
Panama’s equal-sized army of red-shirted fans continued to dance and cheer on the ‘Canaleros’ (Canalmen) to the end.
Substitute Felipe Baloy rewarded them with a consolation goal in the 78th minute, sliding home a free kick that was Panama’s first goal in their debut World Cup.
But in truth, it was a humbling experience for Panama against a side known to get nervous and slip up against less illustrious rivals on the big stage.
“Panama is like a small young child in football. We are like virgins ... England is totally spectacular, a beautiful team,” said Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who went into the English changing room at halftime to congratulate Southgate.
“It could have been an even bigger score. I was feeling scared in the second half. What we did was to try to avoid a bigger catastrophe. We tried to keep the ball more in the second half and play in a more orderly fashion.”
For England fans, the pain of being knocked out in the last 16 by Iceland in the 2016 European Championship and a first-round exit without a win at the 2014 World Cup, was finally slipping away.
Southgate’s task now will be to keep his young charges’ feet on the ground, and guard against complacency whomever they face next from Group H’s quartet of Japan, Senegal, Poland and Colombia. (Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson, Ossian Shine, Simon Evans, editing by Mitch Phillips and Pritha Sarkar)