Blimey. If you thought English Premier League defending was “dreeeeaaaadful” (copyright Alan Hansen) last season, and it was, wait ‘til you see what’s coming.
Groups A and B
The opening day of the FIFA Under-20s World Cup was a bit of a joy to behold for lovers of expansive and positive football. But Christ on a bike, what was going on at the back? British Eurosport commentator Tim Caple was raving about the competition after the Nigeria v. Portugal match (“it never, EVER disappoints… and we’ve got this tournament from start-to-finish” – more on the disingenuousness of that in a later article). And he took a particular early shine to Portuguese centre-back Edgar Ie, whose name resembles an Irish e-mail address but who played like one after some early commentator-friendly touches. France could have racked up a hockey score against Ghana if they hadn’t treated much of the match like it was hockey and refused to shoot until they were inside the penalty area. Cuba looked like scoring every time they got the ball in the Korea Republic box. Fortunately for the South Koreans, this only happened three times in the 90 minutes. And Spain might have emulated their senior team’s ten-goal haul against Tahiti in the Confederations Cup had they not declared after an hour with four on the board against the hapless, occasionally violent United States.
This latter game was probably the most Hispanic in the history of international football – and will be until the days, not far away at this rate, when Spain are allowed to field ‘B’ teams at tournaments to make them fractionally less predictable. The…er…”physical” encounter was in the group that “they” are already calling the “Group of Death,” although with all-but-two of the top three teams in the first round groups qualifying for the knockout stages, there won’t be that much dying at all. The quality of both the French and the Spanish almost certainly means that either Ghana or the the US will have to take this “side-door into the last 16. A particularly hapless Guatemalan outfit got out of their 2011 group after two pastings with a fluky late win over a dismal Croatian one. And, of course, England snuck through last time with three 0-0s.
The Ghanaians and the Americans are better than that, as they proved with much improved displays in their second matches. So it is a shame that their meeting in Group As final round will eliminate the loser. The States were let off the hook by France’s lack of drive in front of goal and might have caused a Group A rethink if Luis Gil, scorer of the best of USA/Spain’s five goals, hadn’t lacked drive from the penalty spot. While Ghana ventured into ‘plucky territory’ and way beyond in really putting it up to Spain. There is a temptation to join the love-in surrounding the Spanish team and suggest that even their fringe players in Turkey will be something special. And it was a temptation to which Eurosport commentators Wayne Boyce and ‘oh no it’s’ Mark Bright readily succumbed. I mean, yes, it was a powerful sign of attacking intent that Spanish full-back Javier Manquillo found himself racing down the right flank alongside attacker Suso at one stage early in the second half. But they were both chasing a badly overhit pass, which neither could stop going out of play.
Spain’s under-20s are a more direct outfit than most of their ‘tiki-taka’ compatriots, with strikers, and scorers, Jese and Gerard Deulofeu running onto a plethora of pinpoint through balls from the halfway line past a static-looking but just out-thought American rearguard and the more fluid but haphazard Ghanaians. The States even got close to matching Spain’s possession stats. But that gap was at its closest only when the game descended into tetchiness after half-time. And Spain made their decisive moves of the match in the five minutes before half-time, during which time they trebled their lead. This made Eurosport’s match highlights programme particularly frustrating, consisting as it did of the entire second half, as live. We got replays of Spain’s three first-half goals, all quality. But only while America’s Daniel Garcia received treatment for injuries suffered in a full-on assault by Spain’s Israel Puerto. As Garcia, very slowly, recovered, Boyce & Bright seemed to add body parts with which the Mexican/American had been hit – six in total, by the time Garcia had staggered to his feet. But whatever Puerto used, it was more an assault than a tackle, more a criminal than a bookable offence.
Spain/Ghana, a match which included music hall-sounding double act Derik (Spain) and Duncan (Ghana) on its teamsheets, avoided any such descent into free-floating violence. And Ghana so flustered commentator Leroy Rosenior that he was left marvelling at how they were “opening up Spurs much easier than you’d expect.” The commentary team also insisted that their ultimate 1-0 defeat knocked Ghana out of the competition, which is not the case at all, given the afore-mentioned opportunities afforded third-placed teams. But Spain were correctly noted as the first team through, which seems appropriate, even if they are not, yet anyway, quite as good as NAME and Bright think they are.
France’s Paul Pogba SHOULD be a star of this tournament. He is, by a stretch, its highest-profile player, coming off the back of a triumphant Serie A and lengthy Champions League campaign with “Italian giants” Juventus. But he is also, and also by a stretch, the quickest thinker in the French team – too quick, certainly, for many of his team-mates. A number of his passes seemed to go to no-one or harmlessly out for a goalkick. And you suspected that commentators who had talked him up pre-match might have used the “too quick for his team-mates” line even if it wasn’t demonstrably true.
As it was, France had enough ability at the right level to look very impressive indeed, even if it took them three-quarters of the game to break the deadlock against Ghana and 50 minutes against the US; and even then with one goal which owed more to Stoke City than silky skill and the other which came from a needlessly-conceded penalty. Full-back Lucas Digne looks like Irish so-called comedian Patrick Kielty. And that is the team’s only major fault. Their lethargy-induced profligacy, though, may prove their undoing if luck doesn’t otherwise go their way in the knock-out stages.
After two rounds of matches, Cuba look about the worst team in Turkey. Mathematically, they are still in the tournament but realistically they are long gone. They led after seven minutes against Korea Republic but only some ingenious Korean wastefulness delayed the Asian champions’ winning goal until seven minutes from the end. Cuba will, however, go home with exponentially more tournament experience, which they need. And they will also take the team prize for ‘largest-players’-names-on-back-of-shirts,’ while the owner of the childishly-funniest of those names, Adrian Diz Pe, wins the ‘best of the mohicans’ prize, in the face of stiff and plentiful competition. Portugal have been a key component in two of the tournament’s best games to date, with their 3-2 win over Nigeria topping that particular tree. And tree of the tournament is their centre-forward Aladje who has two goals to his trunk already, thereby overcoming the laws of logic and a disconcerting and occasional resemblance to John Fashanu.
Most international football tournaments have one of these oldest of “old-style traditional” centre-forwards. Cameroon’s Mohammadou Idrissou and Algeria’s Abdulkader Ghezzal at the 2010 World Cup spring readiest to mind. But Aladje isn’t 20 until late-October, for pity’s sake. He must have been a monster in any Portuguese equivalent of the sixth form. Attacking midfielder Bruma (Armindo Tue Na Bangna to his mates) is emerging as a potential star turn and, despite twice conceding twice Daniel De Gea stunt-double Jose Sa has one glove on the ‘goalkeeper of the tournament’ award already, one particularly stunning double save from close-range shots by Abdul Ajagun right on half-time underpinned the win over Nigeria. The Nigerians also have a potential tournament star in the livewire Ajagun. And their ‘second-place play-off’ with Korea Republic on Friday could be the stand-out fixture of the final round of group games (Portugal should top the group on goal difference with a convincing win over the hapless Cubans, even if they leave out ten players and leave in Aladje as a lone striker).
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