By Paul Nicholson at the FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland
June 22 – Panama made sure of their place in the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup with a 4-2 win over tournament new boys Guyana.
In their last major tournament Panama faced England, Belgium and Tunisia. They had never played Guyana before. Guyana have never played at the Gold Cup before the lost to the US last Tuesday in St Paul, Minnesota.
Panama were solid favourites for this match but Curacao shocked Honduras last night to strike a blow for Caribbean giant killing, Guyana showed they were capable of repeating the act.
Guyana had the opening play and should have been a goal up on 10 minutes when Emery Welshman was left with the goalkeeper to beat but fired into his legs. In a passage of play that was all Guyana, Panama’s San Jose Earthquakes defender last gasp interception prevented the ball falling to Welshman.
Panama rode their luck and on 15 minutes struck back against the run of play. A ball into the narrow space between Guyana centre back Matthew Briggs and goalkeeper Akel Clarke saw a second of indecision, enough time to allow Abdiel Arroyo to split them and flick the ball over Clarke and tap into the net. It was cruel luck
On 31 minutes Guyana battled back into the game. Jordan Dover received the ball running into the box but was caught by Alberto Quintero. The referee pointed to the spot and 36-year-old veteran Neil Danns stepped up to hammer the penalty in.
Then tragedy struck for Guyana. A Panama ball across the box was turned into his own goal by Terrence Vancooten.
Guyana responded with passion and fire. Tempers were fraying. The Panamanians who had got away with bullying Trinidad three days ago weren’t going to get away with intimidating Guyana. But they were getting the benefit of the referee.
Fidel Escobar hammered a free kick from outside the box that was tipped on to the bar by Clarke. In the hurly burly aftermath Panama won another free kick on the edge of the box. Escobar blasted this one over.
Half time: Panama 2 Guyana 1
Panama opened the second half with intent. Clarke was forced into action early to save a fierce shot from Edgar Brcenas.
Seconds later another Panama run into the box saw Jordan Dover, the penalty winner in the first half bring down Michael Murillo. A spot kick was awarded and Eric Davis stepped up to see his effort brilliantly saved by Clarke diving to his right.
There is no VAR here but there is controversy nevertheless. The assistant referee flagged that Clarke had moved off his line. It looked a dubious decision and the TV replay showed it was a terrible one – Clarke had left a trailing foot on the line. Davis made no mistake with his second chance. The referee had changed the game leaving an unbridgeable gap for Guyana.
Panama were in control and could afford to let Guyana force the play. On 85 minutes a Panama attack saw the ball fall to Quintero on the right who picked out the unmarked Gabriel Torres who headed in to make it 4-1.
The game may have been over but the last word went to Guyana. A 90th minute free kick by Keanu Marsh-Brown hit Valentin Pimental’s arm. The referee pointed to the spot for the fourth time and Danns – the Toxteth-born Guyanan – hammered it home with vengeance.
Post-match, Guyana coach Michael Johnson congratulated Panama and expressed disappointment at his own team. “Performance wise I am disappointed. I know we can play so much better than that. But I can’t doubt their work rate. We need to be more efficient…we gifted two goals and that is disappointing.”
Comment on the third goal, game changing goal and the referee’s error, was understandably withering. “I’m not sure it was a penalty in the first place and then our keeper made a brilliant save. I don’t understand how he made this decision…but we are little Guyana.”
Perhaps little but the impact of Johnson’s team has been big. “This has been bigger than football. The opportunity was to put Guyana on the global map. Now it is time for the government to step up and put real investment into sport and give kids in the country an opportunity. We have shown what can be done but there are so many interesting Guyanan stories that are bigger than this moment. Not only that but how do we sustain being at the Gold Cup, we don’t want to just be a one-tournament wonder.”
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