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Results: France 2 Ghana 1; Uruguay 1 Iraq 1 (AET, 90 minutes 1-1, Uruguay win 7-6 on penalties)
So, faced with all the exotic possibilities produced by an eclectic final 16, not least that of a Ghana v Iraq final, an extraordinary Under-20s World Cup tournament got ordinary at the semi-final stage and left us with a ‘traditional’ Europe v South America final. Two good games, mind. Well, one-and-a-half. Iraq’s loon-factor-ten goalkeeper Mohammed Hameed nearly separated best player Ali Adnan’s chin from the rest of his head in a high-speed collision shortly after half-time in their semi-final against Uruguay. And after that, the game became a touch directionless, with Iraq failing to regather their zest.
Uruguay were the better side in a fine first-half, playing more expansively than in previous games in Turkey. Yet they went in at the break one-down after another Adnan special. “If he gets it right, it could be a problem,” noted Eurosport’s Stuart Robson, understating nicely as Adnan got it very right indeed, his free-kick from the right flank flying past Uruguay keeper Guillermo De Amores. Robson was on an understatement roll, having already suggested Iraq were “in a bit of a tangle at the back.” Hameed registered in the nutjob column within 100 seconds of the kick-off, haring from goal for no immediately transparent reason (“he’s got a blunder in him,” Robson again). And his defence, even the otherwise collected centre-back Ali Faez, played with all the confidence you’d expect such keeping to inspire.
Faez gradually recollected his composure as the match progressed. And Hameed made fine saves to deny Nicolas Lopez twice, midway through the half, as Uruguay threatened to score each time they moved forward with any purpose. Prior to Hameed’s second save, Lopez was tripped inside the penalty area. And while commentators wondered whether the striker should have gone down, there was scope for wondering whether the referee could have brought the play back and given the penalty anyway.
Such was the dominance Uruguay were beginning to exert, it didn’t look as if such technicalities would matter. When Adnan scored ten minutes later, it seemed as if they might. “Iraq are at it again,” said Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce, a hint of disapproval in his voice. And the goal gave them all the energy with which they had graced the tournament since their nervous first half against England, all those years ago. When Robson referenced Iraq’s three-man midfield, he could almost have been talking about Humam Tareq on his own. Hameed ran further than half the outfielders; in particular Uruguay’s star in their quarter-final win over Spain, Diego Laxalt, and Iraq’s two-goal “star” of their last eight triumph over Korea Republic, Farhan Shakor, both of whom left their quarter-final form in the quarter-finals.
Most of Iraq’s game plan was disrupted by Hameed & Adnan’s collision. This happened after Hameed appeared to play rush goalie that once too often in trying to put off Lopez when the Roma striker was clean through on goal for the umpteenth time. It worked, as Lopez lobbed the ball wide of the recently-vacated goal. But Hameed crashed into Adnan, who was rushing in the opposite direction to make amends for gifting possession to Uruguay in the first place. Perhaps Adnan should not have been surprised to see the bright-yellow-shirted Hameed hurtling towards him like a recently-slipped upon banana skin…after all, he’s met him. But he was caught unawares…and flush on the chin.
Hameed, whose susceptibility to injury was already the stuff of legend & Robson’s disapproval in equal measure, was predictably flat-out, & thus of little concern to team-mates. Adnan was of concern, although the stretcher-bearers seemed amused as they took him to the sidelines for extensive treatment. He emerged with an uncomfortable-looking bandage tied to his chin but, thankfully, kept bombing down the flanks as if nothing had happened. Hameed lurched across his penalty area in a patternless daze for some moments after play restarted; which was a little alarming until you remembered that that was how he played anyway.
The chances after the stoppage fell to Uruguay, with Robson not unreasonably convinced that an equaliser was only “a matter of time” until Boyce reminded him that that was how the first half was panning out until Iraq’s goal. Substitute Gonzalo Bueno headed the best against the crossbar, with TV pictures creating the impression that he’d sneaked onto the field un-noticed at the far post. And on 80 minutes Uruguay, perhaps to the dismay of football purists everywhere, sent for “the big lad up front.”
Felipe Avenatti’s header against Spain got Uruguay to the semi-final in the first place. So it was an entirely reasonable call by coach Juan Verzeri – resembling a cross between John Inverdale (not a good look currently) and Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler. And it worked. In fact, Verzeri’s three substitutes combined for the equaliser, Avenatti neatly nodding Diego Rolan’s cross into the path of the on-rushing Bueno, who finished with ‘aplomb’…well…a left-foot shinner from 12 yards past Hameed’s inevitably extravagant dive. Expect Verzeri to be linked with the Real Madrid job as soon as that becomes vacant yet again. “And we’re surely going to extra-time now,” shouted Boyce, unwisely, forgetting all the tournament’s late dramas and the eight minutes stoppage time brought about by Hameed & Adnan’s clash – & repairs to Hameed’s subsequent bandage malfunction, pictures of which should have gone viral by now.
Iraq probably should have won it midway through that stoppage time. But Mohanad Abdulraheem, one of the few Iraqis not to enhance his reputation in recent weeks, headed wide of an enticing goal from inside the six-yard box. The prospect of a “half-hour match” (Boyce) brought Colombia/Korea nightmares back for Robson, who was mid-rant about the advantages of going straight to penalties when an incisive Uruguay break stopped him in his tracks. He was back on his hobby-horse when Hameed took ages to effect one clearance. But in-between rest periods (Boyce noting that Iraq’s knock-out games all stretched to 120 minutes, equating to an extra game), both sides had chances.
Hameed inevitably hurt himself putting Lopez off his stride, again, as the striker broke clear, again. And De Amores produced a wonder save from Faez’s late header. In truth, though, anything other than a Uruguayan shoot-out victory would have been wrong on the balance of play. Hameed threatened to jump all over the headlines when he saved the shoot-out’s first kick. But Faez, Iraq’s actual penalty-taker, battered the post with his effort. Hameed might as well have thrown his bandages at Uruguay’s remaining penalties, so often was he wrong-footed (by some otherwise poor kicks). And Uruguay never looked like making the next mistake.
The decision to wipe all previous bookings from players’ tournament records after the quarter-finals was almost universally lauded. But that didn’t help Ghana, who faced France with a back-four almost unrecognisable to each other, let alone those watching (it would have made more sense to wipe the bookings after round two – bookings in the quarters AND semis would probably merit a suspension). France in particular should have scored in the basketball-esque early moments. When Stuart Robson said “4-1-4-1” he was talking about Ghana’s formation. But it could have served as a prediction of the score in each half.
The viewers’ sense of dislocation inspired by Ghana’s L-shaped offside trap was exacerbated by Eurosport commentary which sounded as if it was coming from an echo chamber inside a wind tunnel. This was especially disconcerting when Dan O’Hagan screamed players’ names as they took shots at goal (and there were forty-bloody-three of them). “Pogbaaaah” (as, in his dotage, John Motson took to pronouncing ‘Drogba’) still echoes in my head as I type. France’s Florian Thauvin is, apparently, the “new Edin Hazard,” which is frankly preposterous given that the “old” Hazard is only 22. He has, though, emerged as France’s best player after all the hype surrounding Paul Pogba and impressive displays by other attacking players. And while France’s opening goal was persistently described as a “team goal,” it was very much Thauvin’s team.
If you were to believe the commentators, Thauvin was about to be booked for his unusual goal celebrations, eschewing the usual French dance moves in favour of using the corner flag as a mock machine-gun. But as this would have been Thauvin’s second booking, the referee thought better of it. “I saw him get his yellow card out & then put it back,” Robson declared, before admitting quietly a few moments later that the ref “might just have been writing the scorer’s name down.” Boyce, however, maintained the “should he be on the pitch?” line, suggesting that a career as a SKY TV controversialist…er, sorry…commentator is his for the taking.
If Thauvin’s goal opened the floodgates, they weren’t open long. Ghana keeper Eric Antwi succumbed to injury at half-time after getting a kick on the shins midway through the first half (“he’s making the most of that,” insisted Dr Robson). And after their first-half display, it was little wonder that they employed “best form of defence is attack” tactics in the second. The wonder was that France semi-crumbled. Two minutes after the interval, Ebenezer Assifuah pulled a goal back with a fine snapshot from the edge of the box (which counts as ‘close range’ for the Ghanaians). And they could and should have levelled another couple of minutes later when Frank Acheampong’s free-kick was tipped over by French keeper Alphonse Areola, who then made an even better stop from Michael Anaba’s bullet header from the resultant corner.
Only Thauvin retained a threat for France as Ghana poured forward, searching for the goal from what Robson curiously called “prime pieces of shooting real estate” (an hour in an echo chamber obviously messes with your mind). But Thauvin proved enough of a threat, firing home the winner with 14 minutes left – cue more “should he have been on the pitch?” speculation from Boyce. Areola provided more acrobatic heroics two minutes later to divert Assifuah’s toe-poked effort at a second equaliser. And the same combination produced the same result in stoppage time, although Areola would have looked foolish if he’d let that one in. France held out despite centre-back Samuel Umtiti’s 79th-minute dismissal. “You’re allowed to hold a player off,” explained Robson, mystifyingly. Nonetheless, Umtiti’s rather camp hand-off on Anaba didn’t merit the second booking he received. And Anaba’s play-acting left the neutrals, proudly supporting Ghana to that point, with a moral dilemma until the final whistle.
The competition is still France’s to lose, then, as it has been since Spain went home. Uruguay have improved since losing a scruffy opening game to the long-departed Croatia. But they haven’t improved that much. So the final of a tournament which has produced so much flair will be contested by two teams with more reliance than most on muscular organisation. Which might be a shame.
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