Hernan Dario Gomez has picked his final 23-man squad for the World Cup. But, how far can Panama go in their first finals at Russia 2018?

The Cinderella story of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Panama are one of two debutants at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. And, quite like Iceland, the story around their bow on the big stage is quite gripping and emotional, with their hopes dangling by a thread right until the final moment.

Los Canaleros had nearly qualified for the 2014 edition as well, when they needed a win over USA, and for Mexico to lose at the same time in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying matches. This time around, they were in a similar predicament, needing to beat already qualified Costa Rica, while hoping for USA to lose their final game to Trinidad and Tobago.

The final game had it all, from a ghost goal by Gabriel Torres that equalised the game as well as the winner by captain Roman Torres deep into regulation time that sent Estadio Rommel Fernandez into a frenzy as Panama qualified at USA’s expense. The players would go on to dedicate the qualification to Amilcar Henriquez, who was tragically murdered midway through the campaign.

At the end of it all, Panama had exorcised the ghosts of the 2014 qualifiers to finally make it to the finals of a FIFA World Cup. The Hard Tackle now takes a look at the squad that Hernan Dario Gomez has picked, and assesses if Los Canaleros can make a mark in their maiden World Cup campaign.

Group and Fixtures

Panama have been drawn in Group G, with Belgium, England and Tunisia for company. Los Canaleros will begin their World Cup journey against Belgium on June 18, before facing England on the 24th. They will then wrap up their group stage campaign in a potential third-place decider against Tunisia on June 28.

The Squad

Hernan Dario Gomez had initially picked the maximum of 35 men in his preliminary squad, but has now zeroed in on his final 23-man squad for finals in Russia 2018. Here are the players who have made the cut:

Goalkeepers: Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest), Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco).

Defenders: Felipe Baloy (Municipal), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Eric Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders).

Midfielders: Edgar Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Atletico Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario), Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent).

Strikers: Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Blas Pérez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sport Boys), Gabriel Torres (Huachipato)

The Panamanian squad is the oldest at this year’s World Cup, with several players way past their peak. These include goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, captain Felipe Baloy and the likes of Roman Torres, Blas Perez and Luis Tejeda, who qualified for their one and perhaps, only finals.

A national hero. (Photo courtesy - Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

A national hero. (Photo courtesy – Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

While the squad has plenty of experience, with six players who have featured more than 100 times for the National Side, Hernan Dario Gomez’s side has an alarming lack of pace that can see them become also-rans by the time the group stage ends.

The pacy outlet is likely to come in the form of Gabriel Torres, who will be the focal point of the Panama attack. The striker had surprisingly attracted interest from Manchester United eleven years ago, and now plays for Huachipato in Chile.

Meanwhile, Jose Luis Rodriguez, one of the few Panama players who are playing their club football in Europe, could be seen as a surprise selection, having only made his debut in a pre-World Cup friendly against Northern Ireland last week. The 19-year-old is likely to be a backup option for Los Canaleros.

While Gabriel and Roman Torres are likely to be key figures in attack and defence, respectively, Gabriel Gomez should be the most pivotal player for Panama, pulling the strings from midfield and likely to be the man responsible for creating the bulk of their goalscoring chances.

The Manager

Hernan Dario Gomez will go down in folklore as a Panamanian legend. (Photo courtesy - Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

Hernan Dario Gomez will go down in folklore as a Panamanian legend. (Photo courtesy – Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

Hernan Dario Gomez was appointed as the head coach in 2014, with the Panama job his first since resigning as the Colombia boss in 2011 for allegedly assaulting a woman, who had criticised his tactics, outside a bar in Bogota.

Gomez is a notorious customer in the world of football, but has prior experience guiding a team to the World Cup finals. He was first responsible for being at the helm when Colombia made it to France 1998, before guiding Ecuador to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

He continued his fine run of ensuring World Cup qualification, this time with an unheralded Panama as the side took it to the very last game to make it to the finals. And, the manager has shown a tendency to adjust his side’s game plan heading into the tournament, where he will face tougher opposition than his men have so far.

The qualifiers saw Gomez dish out a 4-4-2, with pace coming from the flanks as well as through the middle from striker Gabriel Torres. But, the Huachipato man will likely be the sole striker in Russia, with the Panama coach shuffling his formation and showing a tendency to play with a 5-4-1.

At the back, Roman Torres should have captain Felipe Baloy and Fidel Escobar for company, with Luis Ovalle and Michael Murillo the full-backs – the duo are likely to provide the width in the final third as well. In midfield, record appearance holder Gabriel Gomez will line up alongside Anibal Godoy, while the wide men are likely to be Armando Cooper and Alberto Quintero.

Probable Lineup (5-4-1): Penedo; Murillo, Baloy, Roman Torres, Escobar, Ovalle; Cooper, Gabriel Gomez, Godoy, Quintero; Gabriel Torres

THT Verdict

A team that just about everyone, except USA supporters, is happy to see at the World Cup. Panama’s appearance at Russia 2018 will be nothing short of groundbreaking, not just for the North American outfit, but also world football itself. But, their journey at their maiden World Cup is only likely to be a short one, having been drawn into a tough group.

Getting this far was achievement enough for Panama, and if they somehow manage to get past the group stage, it’ll be nothing short of unbelievable. Before bowing out though, they are likely to leave their mark, quite literally, with their hard-tackling style of play sure to leave bruises on some of the best players in the world.

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