Results: Spain 2 Mexico 1; Uzbekistan 3 Greece 1; Uruguay 2 Nigeria 1; France 4 Turkey 1; Chile 2 Croatia 0; Ghana 3 Portugal 2; Iraq 1 Paraguay 0 (AET, 90 minutes score… well… 0-0, of course); Korea Republic 1 Colombia 1 (AET, 90 minutes, 1-1, Korea Republic win 8-7 on pens)
It’s a near-tradition of international football tournament finals that at least one team reaches the later stages without remotely impressing. And I don’t mean England’s scuffy under-achieving. Argentina in Italia ’90 provided the prime example of this, reaching the World Cup Final with minimal attacking intent. And Ireland, if we penetrate the green mists of Jack Charlton-folklore, were not hugely better that year. This year’s World Under-20s event has had next-to-none of that. Even the least impressive quarter-finalist, Korea Republic, took part in one fine match, although the fact that they are the surviving team from their 2-2 draw with Portugal is a source of regret. Indeed, the Koreans game against Colombia reminded us what we haven’t missed in this so far joyous tournament.
Eurosport’s Stuart Robson declared “this will be the sign of a world-class player in the making” as Colombia’s Juan Quintero lined up a free-kick on the corner of the penalty box. Granted, it wasn’t “they think it’s all over…”. But it seemed hugely appropriate when Quintero pinged the ball in off the post to save Colombia from a 1-0 defeat with, literally, the last kick of the 90 minutes. That sort of stuff, we’ve got used to. Eurosport has enough material for about three montages of great goals from this competition, whenever they need to advertise their coverage of the next. But the resultant extra-time was the sort of fear-gripped megabore with which past competitions have been littered, Colombia handing back, in minutes, the momentum they’d spent an hour taking.
It was almost as if, as Robson’s colleague Wayne Boyce noted with mounting exasperation, both coaches decided they preferred losing on penalties to losing in extra-time. Swathes of the first-half especially were played out in a lifeless daze in midfield, with Korea content to pass the ball square and Colombia content to watch. This was bizarre. The 90 minutes had built perfectly to its climax. Colombia started slowly and went a goal behind before picking up the pace in the second half, culminating in a last five minutes where they hit the post and Korea keeper Lee Changgeun made a number of vital interventions, the best a terrific full-stretch parry of a Quintero thunderbolt. Many neutrals, me included, began extra-time willing Colombia to victory, largely because the second round seemed too early a departure for a player of Quintero’s class. We ended extra-time almost willing Korea to a shoot-out victory, which they gained after 18 spot-kicks containing more determination and off-the-ball running than the half-hour anti-football they followed.
It was extra-time from a different sport in Iraq’s pulsating victory over Paraguay. Tactically, the Iraqis were as clueless in the thirty minutes as Colombia, but for entirely worthier reasons. After the best goalless 90 minutes I’ve ever watched, Iraq took a 94th-minute lead against a Paraguay team down to ten men since Arnaldo Sanabria’s 80th-minute dismissal for a stamp of a tackle. And it was clear that they had no idea what to do next. They knew that they had to ‘close the game out,’ having been ‘there at the time’ when England failed to do so in their opening group game. But their enjoyably reckless instincts seemed to win their internal debate, especially perpetual-motion-in-green Ali Adnam, who continued to motor along the left flank like his career depended upon it.
Fortunately for Iraq, his travels briefly took in his own goal-line – fractionally behind it, Paraguay were quick to claim – to clear up the mess kamikaze-keeper Mohammed Hameed made of a regulation cross. Hameed, of course, made a series of acrobatic saves and, of course, injured himself in the process of most of them. But his leaping lunacy didn’t cost ‘his’ team (you have to keep reminding yourself that he is Iraq’s captain). And given the style and skill with which Iraq again set about their work, this was good news. Paraguay were unlucky. They had no-one but themselves to blame for some of their profligate finishing – coach Victor Genes looked more like a greying Chris Coleman with every misplaced effort. But they were denied two of the clearer penalties you could imagine. And then there was Adnam’s ‘goal-line’ heroics. Fantastic match, though.
As was Ghana’s win over Portugal, even if most of the defending fitted a different interpretation of ‘unbelievable.’ One good team was going to leave us here. And sadly it was probably the better team which did. Their own silly fault, though. If your striker can’t locate an open goal from four yards and your two-man defensive wall splits just as ball arrives, you are going to struggle, however bad the opposition is at defending your training ground set-pieces. When it comes to worst misses ever, Greek midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis is SOOO last week. Portugal’s Aladje was already filed under ‘oak tree’ in this column’s list of international strikers. But any tree could have put away the chance gift-wrapped by the hugely impressive Bruma, ELEVEN seconds after kick-off. That Aladje got so far forward so quickly suggests more mobility than I’d credited him with. But he needn’t have bothered if he was just going to do… that. “It bobbled,” came the commentary box cry. Well… yes. But… really.
Bruma was once more at the centre of most things good and Portuguese. And they only trailed at the break by yet another wonder strike from distance, Kennedy Ashia’s 25-yarder seemingly gathering pace as it flew past keeper Jose Sa. So the game looked won when they went 2-1 up with 15 minutes left, Ghana’s rearguard caught sleep-walking by closely-related moves from Portuguese corner-kicks. But Portugal defended so deep that they allowed Michael Anaba to equalise from a distance even Aladje could manage more often than not. Not even that, however, matched the doziness of the two-man defensive wall which appeared to turn to chat to each other as the ball passed through. The previously outstanding Sa might have done better than parry the shot into the net. But he had every right to be surprised to meet it.
Bruma will probably be glad of the break; as will his club boss – soon to be the Portuguese fella at Chelsea, if transfer rumours are to be believed. He has been pivotal to Portugal’s progress in this tournament and their qualification for the up-coming Uefa Under-19s championship, which he is young enough to grace. To lose two players of such quality, he and Quintero, within four hours is a blow from which tournaments of lesser quality might struggle to recover. There’s some quality left, however.
France played with a hitherto undemonstrated focus in dismantling the hosts. Turkey were unimpressive in their group games. But they were way off the pace of a French side with a midfield’s of Yaya Toure-clones and enough firepower to ensure that that midfield’s efforts were not wasted. Without realising that the deal had been done, I noted that, being French and good, striker Yaya Sanogo was inevitably Arsenal-bound. He won’t be the only loss to the French league if the team continues like this. And Eurosport’s Dave Farrar could proclaim that France were “carving Turkey open” by the seventh minute (although co-commentator Gary O’Reilly wasn’t happy that he did…probably because he wished he’d got there first).
France’s improvement means Spain aren’t quite the clear favourites they might otherwise have been without Colombia and Portugal. And Spain will go too if they are as shoddy against a lucky side as they were against a desperately unlucky Mexico. Spain were probably as stunned as any observers by Arturo Gonzalez’s over-the-shoulder volley in the second minute, which put Mexico ahead. That, though, didn’t explain a sudden team-wide inability to pass the ball straight, eerily reminiscent of their senior team’s scruffy Confederations Cup final display hours earlier. Spain weren’t in it for 50 minutes and only got into it when “Manchester City’s Denis Suarez” replaced the misfiring Gerard Deulofeu. And seconds after Eurosport’s Tim Caple wheeled out the age-old line about whether Mexico’s misses “would come back to haunt them”…they did, Suarez heading on a corner which centre-back Derek bundled in at the far post – the sort of goal commentators seem contractually obliged to call “untypically Spanish.”
Spain were ‘typical’ thereafter. And even though Mexican keeper Richard Sanchez dived over Jese’s weak, deflected right-foot stoppage-time winner (untypical Spain again), the Spanish would probably have scored during extra-time. So. Mexico, Colombia and Portugal out, Uruguay and Uzbekistan through. It’s hard to love Uruguay Like many teams here, including England alas, they echo their seniors. One or two classy players. One or two not very good at all. And hard-workers everywhere.
The crowd found it easier to love Nigeria. But for most of their first half against Uruguay neither side got going at all. “Still a chess match,” noted Eurosport’s Matt Jackson after half-an-hour, to the sound of grand masters everywhere suing for defamation. Abdullahi Shehu’s 41st-minute dismissal was immediately obvious, as it was about the first two-footed jump-tackle of the tournament. Jackson tried to excuse Shehu because he landed inches short of Diego Laxalt’s shins. But even Jackson admitted Shehu deserved a yellow “for intent”, which would have seen him dismissed anyway as he’d just been booked…a booking for stupidity could have been added, if the referee fancied the paperwork.
Nicolas Lopez gave Uruguay a fortunate lead – he was the only one of four unmarked Uruguayans in the six-yard box who was onside after Nigerian keeper Chukwunenye Okani lost an aerial challenge with Gaston Silva and the ball ‘dropped kindly’ (“He’s deadly from a yard – Jackson). So goal-of-the-match was no contest, Olarenwaju Kayode running undisturbed for 50 yards and pinging one into the top corner from 25. Uruguay’s winner arrived when substitute Diego Rolan took advantage of errors by each remaining Nigeria’s defender, and keeper, in turn, before being upended in the box – Lopez chipping the spot-kick coolly down the centre past a flying Okani. “What was he thinking?” cried Eurosport’s Wayne Boyce. “He wasn’t,” replied Jackson, correctly.
Boyce’s question could have been asked of every defender in Uzbekistan’s 3-1 win over Greece. Three penalties were given. But there were at least two fouls in the box for at least two of them (three for Greece’s penalty), which led confused TV directors to confuse TV commentators to focus on fouls which the referee hadn’t actually penalised. Andy Bodfish actually thought ultra-stern Cote D’Ivoire referee Noumandiez Doue had booked the wrong player for the foul which brought the Uzbeks their first penalty, which mattered because the identified culprit, Dimitrios Kourpelis, had already been booked, in about the fifth minute. But Doue got it right.
The only goal that wasn’t a penalty was a good one. “If a Spaniard did that, we’d be waxing lyrical,” Bodfish…er…waxed lyrical (it was “if a Brazilian…” in my day), though Abbosbek Makhstaliev’s volley wasn’t quite that good (“he FLINGS his right-foot at the ball,” screamed Stan Collymore, momentarily forgetting he wasn’t on Talksport). And Uzbekistan have no chance against France. Bryan Hamilton is giddier about this tournament than me. And only a mother, and Hamilton, could love a game such as Chile/Croatia. Not that it was bad. Just that, apart from the closing stages of each half, it wasn’t very good.
Eurosport’s Dan O’Hagan learnt Spanish at an unusual school. Chile were “ChillAY.” And their centre-forward Nicolas Castillo was Nicolas Cashteeeeeszzhho. O’Hagan also identified Castillo as Chile’s star player and team barber, neither of which was expected. Castillo certainly made a ‘distinctive’ job of his own hair, which may have contributed to Chile’s 81st-minute opener, a deft-looking, though possibly unintentional, back-header over exposed Croatia keeper Oliver Zelenika; the ball appearing to treat Castillo’s protruding Mohican as a runway. Croatian centre-half Jozo Simunovic slid the ball home four minutes later. But unfortunately for him, it was in his own net; and a tetchy Croatia, especially their only notable players (Marko Livaja and Ante Rebic), were gone. So it wasn’t only Bryan Hamilton who was happy at this final whistle. Eight games left, then. And this tournament is toasting nicely.
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