Groups E and F

Group E Results: Chile 2 Egypt 1; England 2 Iraq 2; Chile 1 England 1; Iraq 2 Egypt 1

“Well, we’ve cast our eyes around all the major contenders. Now it’s England’s turn.” So said Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce, just before England’s tournament opener against Iraq, possibly not quite meaning it to sound like that. Mind you, he and co-commentator Danny Mills seemed to arrive at England’s second game with a pre-arranged narrative which did not involve Peter Taylor’s team matching their Chilean opponents and, honestly, being a little unfortunate not to seal the first Under-20s World Cup win since the days when Michael Owen was really good. Yes, that long ago. Bryan Hamilton – a Northern Irishman, of course – was not so reluctant to give England credit where it was due. After an hour against Iraq, England were two-up and just about worth it. Their second goal came on the break after keeper Sam Johnstone made a fabulous double-save to prevent an Iraqi equaliser. But it was as good a counter-attack goal as you could wish to see.

This kick-started Hamilton on a thought process which involved England making substitutions to allow players to “rest up” for what he must have considered more difficult assignments ahead, even though he didn’t dare say as much. But Hamilton’s confidence was already unwise. Iraq had seemed overawed and too respectful of their opponents in a first half which England won 1-0 and almost entirely controlled. They were nearly over-run in the opening exchanges and were grateful for a fine save by Mohammed Hameed (who has proved a bit loony tunes, even for a notoriously ‘unorthodox’ profession such as goalkeeping) and a breathtaking goalline clearance from Ali Adnan, which was not to be his last dramatic intervention. But, as the need for Johnstone’s goalkeeping heroics suggested, Iraq’s attitude changed for the second half. They came out and played… and discovered that they could play. Indeed, as confirmed by beating Egypt in a largely wonderful game, they could play better than most of the teams at the tournament.

While this made their 2-2 draw seem like a better result than it did at the time, England were still guilty of an inability to close out a game they’d already all-but-won – a fear even the hyper-confident Hamilton expressed with five minutes left. And having been flummoxed by a familiar long ball over the top on the way to conceding a 75th-minute penalty, England’s defenders were always likely to struggle against one of those tricky, on-the-ground types. Thus did Ali Adnan turn his putative markers inside and out, then back to front before nutmegging Johnstone to equalise with the last meaningful kick of the game. It may have felt like a defeat for England. And it certainly felt like a victory for Iraq – especially to the big bald fan in the green t-shirt who blubbed his way through the immediate post-match proceedings. But context was everything. And Iraq were worthy winners of an even worthier match against Egypt.

Hameed could scarcely be an unlikelier captain; as far from ‘leading by example’ as you could get. His leaping about all over (and out of) his box was pure entertainment but it looked to me like he leapt out of the way of Conor Coady’s header for England’s first goal. The team do, though, play with enough of his dash and verve to be a joy to watch. And the first 45 minutes against Egypt was the most joyous of the tournament to date. Naturally, neither side could keep that going for 90 minutes. But the game maintained a fascination. And Mohanad Abdulraheem’s winner was indicative of Iraq’s dash…and dash of good fortune on the day. He evaded three challenges in varying ‘styles’ before supplying a cool finish into what looked like an empty net…until three Egyptian defenders came sliding into shot, only to each slide past the ball in a manner which was as undignified as it was hilarious.

Egypt have now twice what I heard called a “reverse Arsenal” – one-nil up, two-one down against both Chile and Iraq. And their blubbing at the final whistle was born of despair – they think they are out. But in Mahmoud Kharaba, they possess far and away the best player to finish on the losing side twice. And he will prove difficult for England to handle in the decisive group fixture. Boyce and Mills will certainly think so. I arrived at Eurosport’s live coverage of Chile/England having read the Fifa website’s ‘play-by-play’ match report on, and seen highlights of, the first half. Both suggested that England had played well and were a shade unfortunate to be behind at the break. And subsequent viewing of the whole match, as live, confirmed those suspicions. I was therefore surprised to hear from Mills that England had “just not performed” in the first half. Indeed Mills, far from the worst football pundit on TV, was so deep in mid-moan that he nearly missed Harry Kane’s well-taken 64th-minute equaliser.  And England had chances to win it after that – substitute Alex Pritchard should have buried a late header as England were inspired to a strong finish by a 15-minute cameo from fellow sub Larnell Cole. They did ride their luck when Bryan Rabello found the crossbar from over 30 yards with three minutes left. But they were well worth their point. Indeed, England have been pretty good to watch and have played their part in possibly the most entertaining group to date.

Group F Results: 

Uzbekistan 3 New Zealand 0; Croatia 1 Uruguay 0; Uruguay 2 New Zealand 0; Croatia 1 Uzbekistan 1

In sharp contrast, Group F has been the aesthetically most unpleasant of the competition. New Zealand v. Cuba would probably be the last-place play-off if Fifa thought there was money in such things. Croatia are probably the most violent team in Turkey. Even in a tournament as leniently refereed as this they managed to get half their side cautioned against Uruguay and any midway strict ref might have booked the lot of them – one or two of them twice. The Uruguayans themselves have probably got so many “people asking why Brazil and Argentina aren’t here,” as Eurosport’s Tim Caple insists on telling us whenever there’s the slightest opportunity to do so (that neither made it to the final rounds of a qualifying competition hosted by Argentina is the finals’ most over-used fact). And Uzbekistan romp home with this group’s style points simply by being what my notes describe as a “team of neat and tidies.”

The Uzbek senior team were a small surprise package at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. And here too they look composed, confident and, well, ‘neat and tidy.’ This was way too much for the hapless Kiwis, whose goalkeeper Maxime Crocombe virtually presented them with their first goal and so was never going to get near Diyorjon Turapov’s stunning free-kick for the Uzbek’s third. Crocombe was predictably replaced by New Zealand’s actual number one, Scott Basalaj, for their second game, only for Basalaj to suffer a similar fate when Uruguay’s Giorgan De Arrascaeta pinged a fabulous free-kick over his head within four minutes. Pat Nevin came up with a befuddled version of an “old cliché” on the BBC the other day when he referred to “the goal needing a game.” It could be argued that Nevin’s newly-coined phrase was appropriate to both Turapov’s and De Arrascaeta’s efforts.

It was more down to Uruguay’s ‘careful’ attitude to attacking play – a refreshing rarity in this competition – that the Kiwis didn’t get a hammering. Roma striker Daniel Lopez, the Uruguayans contribution to the list of ‘players to watch’, has impressed, but only in short bursts. So Croatia must be group favourites and dead-certs for the last 16 simply because New Zealand are their final opponents.  “Nothing’s a given,” noted Eurosport’s Gary O’Reilly (whose perma-sarcasm may not be to everyone’s tastes but certainly is to mine) when presented with that theory. Well, even if Croatia are haunted by memories of their 2011 defeat to the equally-rubbish Guatemalans, New Zealand may be about to disabuse us of that notion. Indeed, it could be argued that the best thing about New Zealand’s team is their players’ names, including as they do Storm Roux, Simon Arms, Jesse Edge and Van Duraid Elia in their squad. They are, of course, stuck in a hopelessly uncompetitive rut, with their only consistently credible opposition in Oceania, Australia, having buggered off to Asia for their international football. But I’m not sure that explains away all of this crop of Under-20s’ insipidity.

However, I’d happily be proved wrong on all of the above if it hampered Croatia’s progress. Their best player, Marko Livaja, was booked after about six seconds of their opening game against Uruguay. And I have yet to discover a more succinct summary of the chequered-shirted ones’ efforts and attitude. Alas, with New Zealand as whipping boys and contributors of three points to any opposition who wants them, Group F is likely to contribute three teams to the competition’s last 16, while Group E, by being the best-matched as well as the best, may well only provide two – with any loser of Egypt v England facing elimination. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

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