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So. Hello, then, a Mexico/Nigeria Under-17 World Cup final. This engaging tournament is back almost where it started after three weeks of football largely and refreshingly free of cynicism and, at least in my case, predictability. Mexico and Nigeria, who met on the tournament’s third day, were worthy and ultimately convincing winners of two entertaining semi-finals which followed similar patterns – lively first halves, scrappy third quarters and fractionally flattering victory margins.
Three-nil was harsh on both Argentina and Sweden, although it was far easier to feel sympathy for the latter. Argentina had only ten men for an hour after Joaquin Ibanez surfed Mexico’s Omar Govea’s left leg – described by fifa.com as a “two-studded tackle,” which was as wide of the mark as a Cote D’Ivoire shot. And while they were sufficiently tactically astute to make the second half a contest, despite being two-nil down at the break, they should have been down to nine men even by the time Ibanez slid into view.
The holders of ticket number 20 won the worldwide “in what minute will Lucio Compagnucci get booked” sweepstake (you could have thrown ticket number 46 back in the drum). But the combative Argentine midfielder ought to have seen red for what replays revealed to be a forearm smash into Ulises Jaimes’ face. And he ought to have seen red again when he used Mexican goalkeeper Raul Gudino’s back as the step phase of a triple jump after Gudino beat him to a through ball.
Gudino provided the pivotal moment of the game during a frenzied start. Mexico’s Salomon Wbias tried to avoid clattering into Argentina’s Sebastien Driussi in the penalty box in the third minute. But he failed so totally that no-one at all protested the decision – not an outstretched arm in sight. Driussi placed his penalty precisely where Brazil placed a number of their early kicks in their quarter-final shoot-out. But where Brazil found a hole in Gudino’s gloves, Driussi found the gloves. His penalty was the clichéd “nice height for a keeper” (“perfect height” noted Eurosport’s Bryan Hamilton, never one to miss the potential for overstatement). But it was still a fine save… made even better by Ivan Ochoa putting Mexico ahead within two minutes.
“They’re really strutting their stuff now,” Hamilton suggested, with only six minutes gone and the Mexican fans already “ole-ing” feverishly (alongside less-joyous cries of “puta” to accompany Argentine goalkicks). And before the quarter-hour was up, Hamilton was getting feverish himself. “We’ve had goals, we’ve had penalties, we’ve had saves… and now we have a cut,” he gushed, over pictures of a Mexican receiving treatment. Easily-pleased is Brian. But if Argentina thought they had ridden some sort of luck when Compagnucci got away with his first red-card offence, they were quickly disabused of the notion when a demonstrably offside Ochoa scored his and Mexico’s second from the well-worked free-kick Compagnucci conceded. Within another eight minutes Ibanez was trudging off. And even though Argentina threatened either side of the dismissal, the game looked beyond them.
The tactic for dealing with their man disadvantage was to largely by-pass midfield altogether, pumping long, though not aimless, balls to lone striker Driussi, who worked desperately hard and was by some yards the Argentine least deserving of defeat. Argentina were helped by Mexico’s unwillingness to inject much pace into the counter-attacks upon which they were exclusively relying. You won’t need me to tell you what expression that left on coach Raul Gutierrez’s face. And there might have been a scowl-fest in the Mexican dug-out had Argentina pulled one back. They threatened to do so on four separate occasions in an 85th-minute mother of all melees around the six-yard box – the luckless Driussi having one cleared off the line. But in a game of pivotal moments, it was almost inevitable that Mexico would immediately grab their third, when Marcos Granados fired past the too-neatly coiffured keeper Augusto Batalla (think Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid unveiling…and add gel).
Batalla was the second Argentine dismissal – the one that should have been Compagnucci’s long before – when Christian Tovar was sent skywards by a gust of wind near Batalla’s elbow as he galloped goalwards. But 4-0 would have been harsh, even on Compagnucci. It is difficult to envisage Nigeria adopting the cautious attitude which often envelops finalists of even the most entertaining tournaments. We have yet to see their Plan B – they haven’t yet had recourse to one. And there simply can’t be a phrase for “holding midfielder” in any of Nigeria’s many, many languages.
Sweden provided at least as stiff a challenge to Nigeria as Uruguay in the quarter-finals. And ultimately it went the same way. There was little from striker Vlamir Berisha – who played like he could hear the withering criticism regularly shovelled his way by Stewart Robson in Eurosport’s commentary box. But Gustav Engvall’s metronomic display kept the Blagult in contention long enough for coach Roland Larsson to make the sort of substitutions which turned things around against Honduras in the quarters. And when Taiwo Awoniyi’s 68th-minute goal was ruled out for as onside an offside as you’ll ever see in top-level football, there was just a sense that Sweden’s luck might be in; especially as Elias Andersson went unpunished in the first half for a penalty-box handball in the style of the Harlem Globetrotters’ Curly Neal (look them up; if basketball’s your thing, you’ll have a blast).
Nigeria were not Honduras, however. Berisha missed a half-chance for Sweden so early in the game that Eurosport hadn’t even put up their on-screen clock. But by the time Awoniyi converted Kelechi Iheanacho’s perfect defensive-splitting chip, the Golden Eaglets were already in a control they never seriously relinquished. Children in Need will be quids in if people have sponsored Nigerian full-back Musa Muhammed for every cross he hit. None of the goals came directly from his centres (“that’s about 13 or 14 he’s hit,” claimed Robson, ultra-conservatively, midway through the second half). But the ball went out to him so regularly that Sweden’s Sebastien Ramhorn wearied of the chase long before the end.
And that wasn’t the only chasing Ramhorn and co had to do. So it was almost inevitable that Nigeria’s second goal – from their other marauding full-back Samuel Okon – visibly knocked the energy out of them. As is Nigeria’s wont, another goal followed quickly while Swedish heads were still down – literally in the case of Citaku who played Chidera Ezeh onside by ambling out of the penalty box like he was strolling to the newsagents…on a particularly quiet Sunday morning. All that remained was for Iheanacho to louse up a couple of chances to go joint-top of the tournament’s scoring charts (Awoniyi will overhaul him at this rate). There was little to choose between Sweden and Mexico in their group game, which both sides needed to win – Sweden to avoid the then highly-fancied Japanese, Mexico simply to qualify at all. As such, while I don’t think the 6-1 game between the finalists will have any bearing on the final, nor do I think Mexico have it in them to close the evident gap between Sweden and Nigeria in this semi-final.
But I have, of course, been wrong about Mexico before…
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