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It isn’t anyone’s idea of a dream final – certainly not Eurosport’s Tim Caple. But this Under-20s World Cup hasn’t been a dream tournament. Defensive Portugal against counter-attacking Brazil is something of a representation of what we have seen in Colombia over the last three weeks. And the ball could – should, in theory – spend long periods of the final untouched and unloved in the centre circle, as both teams sit back for their contrasting reasons. It would still make for a better spectacle than Austria/Panama, though… or any England match.
The final pairing replicates that of 1991. And Caple was quick to suggest, in the wake of Brazil’s entertaining but trademark slightly flattering 2-0 semi-final win over Mexico, that “it takes you back to 1991, doesn’t it?” Well… no. Caple’s co-commentator Matt Jackson had fear in his voice when he replied: “You’re going to tell me who was playing again, aren’t you?” Caple noted, correctly, that “we’ve already done that,” which didn’t prevent him starting to do it again. I didn’t get further than “Figo, Rui Costa…” before the contrast with the current side became too much to bear. Memories of Portugal’s ‘golden generation’ were just too bitter-sweet when faced with relative rust buckets like Pele, who would be wise to change the nickname.
France would probably pay for a fraction of Portugal’s defensive organisation, though. There’d be heads in hands all over Hackney Marshes after defending like…that for Portugal’s opener as Danilo, big enough to cast a shadow in Peru ghosted in un-noticed at the back post at a corner to head his team in front. They were a fraction unlucky with Portugal’s second goal, a penalty awarded for a ‘collision’ off the ball which was little more than you’d see every day of the week on any busy, narrow pavement. But the young Seleccao have failed to concede a goal all tournament – the “England way” as it probably isn’t known. And they weren’t likely to concede two here. Les Bleuets’ response was the first betrayal of collective fatigue of the tournament. Three weeks is about the right length for international competitions – but not if teams have to play six games in, for France, 19 days, especially underage ones.
After dominating possession and chances, France ran out of both puff and ideas shortly after the hour mark. And the better players seemed to suffer the most. Kalidou Koulibaly had been as solid as a rock in defence after their opening defeat to Colombia but here he was a mess – technically at fault for both goals and clumsiness itself when pushed up front to help chase the game late on. “Impact sub” Alexandre Lacazette limited his impact to getting into numerous good positions and squandering the lot. And Antoine Griezmann, who had edged his way into my team of the tournament (what an honour, eh?), nearly played his way out of it again – the word “stinker” appearing against his name after little more than 25 minutes. All that said, France had more chances than any other team Portugal have faced – and enough to force at least extra-time. The Portuguese rearguard didn’t look like a defence on the cusp of six clean sheets when they left Griezmann in enough space eight yards from goal to cause agoraphobics nightmares. And Griezmann must have been as shocked as anyone in the stadium, as the ball was further away from goal when it struck the advertising hoardings than it was when it left Griezmann’s boot.
Chances came and went late on, too. Co-commentator Stewart Robson said it “seemed strange that Gael Kakuta can only get on the subs bench,” which suggested Robson hadn’t seen much of the group stages. Yet Kakuta was the impact sub this time, the creative hub of the tiring French. Unfortunately, the best late chance fell to full-back Loic Nego after Kakuta’s cross took a triple-deflection of defenders and crossbar. And Nego headed two yards wide from three yards out. The mantras from the commentary position were “Grenier shoots from there” – as French midfielder Clement Grenier tried his luck from all angles and found it was bad from every one – and “strong challenge from Danilo” – as the Portuguese holding midfielder held everything. As a summary of events, it served well. Despite being 0-0 for 80 minutes, Brazil/Mexico was far from the nerve-engulfed non-event you’d normally associate with goalless World Cup semi-finals. Caple was on his anti-Brazilian schtick again – “very, very slow to get into any type of rhythm whatsoever,” he noted before kick-off.
But somebody clearly had a word, as Brazil’s lively-ish start was quickly inflated into their “best performance we’ve seen.” It was going to need to be, with the Mexicans making good use of their scraps of possession and with Brazil having to play the majority of the match with a one-eyed keeper. Gabriel, their effective match-winner in the quarter-final against Spain, received the sort of kick in the face – in an accidental collision with Mexican striker Erick Torres – which might have had some international goalkeepers rolling around in agony for weeks. Torres had been booked in the sixth minute in what initially looked suspiciously like referee Mark Clattenburg on a traditional publicity-hunt but was exposed as bleeding-heart liberalism by slo-mo replays of Torres’ forearm seeking and finding Philippe Coutinho’s nose. But the striker was blameless in the Gabriel incident, which left the Brazilian custodian’s right eye more swollen than Jeremy Clarkson’s ego and in danger of producing a comparable lack of perspective. Gabriel did look a touch wayward under some high balls, but otherwise performed more admirably than many post-match reports have suggested.
The ubiquitous Torres nodded one past Gabriel in first-half stoppage-time but fell victim to an offside flag described incredibly harshly as “luck from the assistant referee”, as Caple momentarily forgot that the man with the flag was English. And Mexico continued to force more saves from less possession, with their chances seemingly enhanced when the influential Coutinho was replaced going into the final quarter. This superficially surprising decision was – equally surprisingly – the Inter prospect’s fourth consecutive early end (the other three on 78 minutes, stats fans), suggesting instructions from Turin to that effect…maybe.But coach Franco Ney’s changes worked, substitutes Negueba and Dudu crossing for Henrique to nod and side-foot the decisive goals and put a smile in Tim Caple’s voice all the way to the final.
It cheered the Colombian crowd too, who backed Brazil against the Mexicans who knocked out their heroes rather than wish for a Mexican win which might have made those heroes look better in hindsight – the trials and tribulations of an unexpected neutral. Portugal may, of course, surprise us all in the final – a game which may definitely “need a goal” early on and a Brazilian one at that. But the odds favour the France/Mexico third-placed play-off being the better match, even if both nations field a slew of relatively unused squad members (I’d certainly be intrigued to see the goalkeeper who can’t get into France’s team ahead of Jonathan Ligali). Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce proudly announced that the final, kicking-off at 3am, central European time, would be a “game for insomniacs.” If Portugal have their way, he could be right.
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