Ooops. England played well in this tournament. No, they did. And yet…and yet… Anyway, more of them later.
Group E Results: Croatia 2 New Zealand 1; Uruguay 4 Uzbekistan 0
There’ll be dancing on the streets of Zagreb tonight during what Eurosport commentator Tim Caple described as a “weekend of celebration for Croatia,” because they qualified for the last 16 in this competition… oh, and they “joined the EU this weekend.” One suspects that there’ll be more of a reaction to the latter, if not necessarily ‘celebration.’ Caple and co-commentator Leroy Rosenior must have been giddy with these celebrations – a touch too much champagne perhaps – when they agreed that Croatia’s under-20s had no “apparent weakness.” There was what Caple himself called “this obsession with getting yellow cards.” And there were plenty of faults and foibles in what was admittedly their second-string’s narrow-as-it-looks victory over Group E whipping boys New Zealand.
The Kiwis’ first two displays in Turkey suggested that any team without apparent weakness would run in a rugby score in Bursa. The young Kiwis even wore their all-black kit in anticipation. And when they went a goal down after only 11 minutes, you feared the worst for them. But they responded with some spirit. And they were firmly in ‘plucky territory’ in the unexpectedly exciting closing stages, as Caple confirmed (“a plucky performance from New Zealand,” he noted, “without being disparaging”). Croatia’s disinterest turned into an apathy from which only second-half substitute Ante Rebic shook them. Chances had come every now and again. But after Rebic’s classy 75th-minute strike, most of them fell to New Zealand.
They pulled back a goal – their first in Turkey and a deserved one on the late balance of play – when Louis Fenton shook off some considerable Croatian efforts at delay and intimidation to slot home a penalty (“I don’t know how the ref saw that,” said Caple of the award, over footage of Fenton himself getting an unceremonious boot on his calf). And they had other moments in front of goal, as they again responded with spirit to conceding. Despite suffering what appeared to be a cramp epidemic during the final quarter, they created numerous chances which might have been taken by more experienced and composed players than Fenton, Tyler Boyd and Cameron Howieson, whose howitzer (sorry) was the best of the strikes on goal, stinging the palms of Croatian keeper, the delightfully-named Simon Sluga. Context was restored by Danijel Miskic’s 30-yard thunderer against the crossbar with three minutes left. And despite being whatever the opposite of resplendent is, in what resembled surgical stockings, Rebic was demonstrably a cut above anything else on the pitch during his 35-minute display.
Croatia were handed the group’s top spot by Uruguay’s unexpected dismantling of the already-qualified Uzbeks. Far from being the ‘neat-and-tidy’ team which took the required four points from their first two games, Uzbekistan were graceless under pressure from the hard-working Uruguayans, who were nonetheless flattered by the 4-0 final score. Roma striker Nicolas Lopez appears to share Uruguayan senior team striker Luis Suarez’s dentist. And he is possessed with at least some of the (soon-to-be-ex?) Liverpool man’s ability around the penalty box. He and Uruguay’s other class act Giorgan De Arrascaeta made goals for each other in the third quarter as the Uzbeks collapsed in a heap after one of their class acts, Jamshid Iskanderov, succumbed to injury before half-time.
Uruguay were otherwise workmanlike and if they are to progress much further then first-half goalscorer Gino Acevedo’s contention that “we can play even better than that” needs to be true. After Acevedo bobbled his 25-yard drive over Uzbek keeper Asilbek Amanov’s gloves, the game ended as a contest. And once Lopez (nicknamed “the rabbit”, to the surprise of no observer of his smile) scored two minutes after half-time, it ended as a spectacle too.
Group F Results: Iraq 2 Chile 1; Egypt 2 England 0
No, really. England played well in Turkey. Comparisons were frequently made between Peter Taylor’s team and the one which avoided scoring goals altogether in qualifying for the last competition’s last-16 in 2011. And Taylor’s team came out on top every time. Yet they’ll be back home by the time many of you read this. It is particularly difficult to fathom how they lost to an Egyptian side they outplayed almost throughout. There were gasps of disbelief in both commentary box and my front room when the stat flashed up on screen after an hour that England were only 6-4 ahead in the ‘shots on’ count. Larnell Cole, an impressive sub against Chile in midweek, must have had nearly six shots on target himself. But the fact that most of them were rolled straight at Egyptian keeper Awad Mossad was indicative of the team’s ultimate failings.
From, literally, the first minute, England created, then spurned chances. The composure shown by striker Harry Kane when he equalised against Chile deserted him here, as if he was suffering a particularly virulent attack of the yips. This was never more evident than six minutes from time, when he headed one chance straight at Mossad before plonking the rebound three yards wide from three yards out. He was offside for the first header, but the reactions of nearby players from both sides suggested that no flag was raised. Could I have done better in the same situation? Of course not. But I could have done… that.
Cole and Kane were not alone in their profligacy. Ross Barkley, the Everton youngster who otherwise lived up to his billing as the one England player most people had heard of, got into as many scoring positions in this one match as some teams have managed in this entire tournament (hello Cuba). And the closest he got to a goal was a 19th-minute volley, off his seemingly very springy shin pads, which was turned aside acrobatically and brilliantly by Mossad. “He’s been allowed to make the saves, in all honesty,” noted an increasingly bitter Rosenior late in the game. Not this save, he wasn’t.
“Fucking win it!” bellowed an unseen member of England’s dug-out as frustrations began to creep in. This came shortly after centre-back Eric Dier won a heated battle with full-back Luke Garbutt over who should take a particularly well-positioned free-kick. Dier’s shot landed flush on the crossbar. But even after this genuine misfortune, it didn’t seem possible that England could avoid finding the net, even when they started to tire in the final 15 minutes. It seemed even more unlikely that Egypt would find the net at all, let alone the three times (without reply) they needed in order to qualify for the last 16 themselves. But, 11 minutes from the end, Trezeget produce two moments of skill and composure worthy of his near-namesake French former international striker, and curled a right-foot shot past previously under-employed England keeper Sam Johnstone.
Kane’s most glaring miss would therefore have only been an equaliser. And qualification nearly fell into Egypt’s clutches in stoppage time when they added a cruel but well-taken second goal on the break. The Egyptians momentarily lost the run of themselves, celebrating this seal of victory as if it had sealed qualification too, until somebody somewhere pointed out that they needed to look for a third goal, rather than pile on top of each other, subs and all, and had 90 seconds to find it against a now-demoralised England rearguard. Having failed to do so, Egypt’s post-match celebrations involved the most mixed of emotions, with the “famous victory” faction slowly winning out over those ruing the fact that Egypt were going home at the same time as England. “They were a bit unlucky, England, in truth,” Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce noted, when the proverbial dust had settled. And while England teams at all levels are well-practised at bemoaning ill-fortune in defeat, on this occasion, Boyce’s words were spot on.
None of the above should take away from the splendour of Iraq’s group victory, though (and Boyce and Rosenior were quick and willing to remind viewers that England were deservedly two-up on Iraq midway through the second half of the sides’ encounter last Sunday). What takes something from it was Chile’s decision to rest virtually all their key players, which leaves them facing Croatia rather than Paraguay in the second round, the silly sods. Most neutrals will thank Chile, though. Iraq once again played their part in a hugely entertaining game (even if Eurosport2 UK decided that we’d all prefer to watch speedway instead). And madcap Mohammed Hameed was one of the stars again, with a number of key saves.
You wonder why he is a goalkeeper, as he seemed to get injured almost every time he repelled Chile’s reserves. And in one memorable goalmouth scramble late in the second half, both he & a defender were prostrate in the six-yard box after forcing the ball to safety. Chile could claim that Iraq won with an offside goal and a deflection. But they’d be wrong. Mahdi Kamil was all on his lonesome when he slid the ball into the net from five yards. But the ball found its way to him via Oscar Hernandez’s deflection of Mohanad Abdulraheem’s cross. Saif Salman’s 30-yard winner was deflected. But who could really deny Iraq the headlines?
Well, Chilean number nine Felipe Mora, for one. His bullet header levelled matters in the first half. And he was responsible for at least two of Hameed’s injuries/saves, seeing his effort from two yards cleared a yard from the line in the afore-mentioned goalmouth scramble by Iraq’s other tournament star turn, Ali Adnan. His profligacy was more down to ill-fortune and fine goalkeeping than Harry Kane’s for England. But the result was the same. And if England were to have qualified at the expense of anyone else in Group F, it certainly did not deserve to be Iraq.
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