If you thought last Sunday was all about some Scots bloke with a stubble you weren’t watching the Under-20s World Cup quarter-finals. Mark Murphy was watching. And he was glad he did.
Quarter-final results: Ghana 4 Chile 3 (AET, 90 mins, 2-2); Iraq 3 Korea Republic 3 (AET, 90 mins, 2-2, Iraq won 5-4 on pens); France 4 Uzbekistan 0; Uruguay 1 Spain 0 (AET)
The final four games of these Under-20s World Cup finals could be exercises in tedium to make Ed Milliband seem dynamic. But that would still not prevent the competition going down in history as one of international football’s finest. I half-expected a mixture of tension and fatigue to overwhelm the quarter-finalists. France – who didn’t seem to care much about anything other than choreographing goal celebrations, had barely broken sweat & faced the understrength Uzbeks – were not in obvious danger of tension or fatigue. But, as it turned out, the one team whose ambition went AWOL was the one we least expected. Sunday’s four quarter-finalists, all file-able in the ‘unfancied’ column, simply went for it. Even Korea Republic, although Eurosport’s Matt Jackson was sniffily unimpressed at their contribution to their quarter-final against the “story of the tournament,” – the phrase still being used to patronise Iraq.
But there was only one place to start any self-respecting quarter-final review – hence the, accurate, sense of multiple re-writes some of you might be getting – as this tournament’s signature match will surely be Ghana’s breathtaking, impossibly dramatic extra-time victory over Chile. The Fifa shot-count caption after 98 minutes was preposterous, literally & topically a tennis score, 30-15 to Ghana, with the 30 tightly-typed as if the graphic was unprepared for it. Eurosport’s Stuart Robson was right to note Ghana’s predilection for shooting from distance when a pass was on. Yet few shots were Row Z affairs. And the fact that a pass was so often on was a testament to the quality of the game’s forward play.
The goals were either stunning or had stunning bits attached. Players such as Frank Acheampong and Nicolas Castillo were hugely impressive (the latter matching the commentators’ hype at last). Even some of the defenders had good games, despite the final shot count being, literally & almost topically, a rugby score, 41-17. Only the goalies were beneath brilliant. Ghana’s Eric Antwi’s role in two Chile goals could be questioned if you were in a crotchety mood, while Chile’s Dario Melo looked, & kept, like he’d taken a shine to Turkish pies. I genuinely don’t recall him looking so…well…fat in the group games.
You could probably argue that Moses Odjer had too much time to volley home the opening goal after his chest control took the ball yards into the air. What a volley, though – Melo wouldn’t have stopped it even if it was a pie. Castillo thumped his equaliser at a similar lick – Antwi only had inches to move but still not enough time. “Manchester United’s Angelo Henriquez”, aka “Angelo Henriquez of Manchester United,” produced a fine turn & low shot to give Chile a 27th-minute lead few could have forecast even five minutes earlier. And Robson criticised Chile for not getting “that vital third goal.” Yet it wasn’t for the want of trying. Henriquez missed one of the better chances (United weren’t name-checked this time) and the very un-Chilean-sounding Igor Lichnovsky betrayed his defensive instincts when presented with another clear opportunity.
It took Clifford Aboagye’s dancing feet and the otherwise profligate Ebenezer Assifuah’s right-old toe-poke to bring Ghana level again, Assifuah taking half the penalty area with him in the process (the Ali Sami Yen Arena pitch remains the competition’s worst…still, the final isn’t being staged there, so…pardon?…ah….). A lack of composure in front of goal in the remaining 18 minutes of the 90 gave us another 30 minutes to savour. You might not have begrudged two knackered-looking sides a “cagey” first 15 minutes of extra-time. Yet that was never in prospect.
Castillo should have scored before Henriquez (“the Manchester United man” again, natch) headed Chile’s third, taking full advantage of Antwi’s momentary loss of bearings. But the second period was Ghana’s again. Seven minutes remained when Assifuah side-footed them level after more good work from Aboagye. And seven seconds remained when Acheampong took off on his umpteenth run to the by-line. Only Acheampong’s right-foot could have kept the ball in play…and he hadn’t knowingly used it all tournament. With what looked like an involuntary tick, though, his right boot finally got a kick, to allow him to find Assifuah with a looping, left-footed cross. Assifuah’s header was weak. But, possibly imbalanced by Acheampong’s right-footed heroics, two Chilean defenders managed to avoid the ball as it floated goalwards – they’d be superstars on Total Wipeout. And Melo had no time to rescue the situation.
Only a match like that could have superseded Iraq’s latest triumph. The few Kayseri attendees have been truly entertained; by Portugal/Nigeria in the group based there; by Ghana’s thrilling demolition of the United States and by the Portugal/Ghana contest that demolition set up. So this game was not Kayseri’s best, given that it died horribly in the last 25 minutes. It was still better than Matt Jackson’s review (“the 90 minutes weren’t that good”). But it saved the very…VERY best ‘til the VERY last. Iraq’s keeper Mohammed Hameed was on his best behaviour, like a hyperactive child overawed by a formal occasion. And this hampered his side’s efforts. They led through Ali Faez’s penalty – the first Iraqi to score twice in the tournament – given for Kim Hyun’s rugby tackle in the box, which Jackson suggested happened all the time.
But Korea soon levelled with a goal from Stoke-on-Trent, Kwon Changhoon heading home Sim Sangmin’s ludicrously long throw. Hameed would normally have flung himself towards, and cleared, the danger…somehow. Here, he stayed on his line…and let the ball through his hands. Iraq led again before half-time, Ali Qasim’s superbly-acrobatic volley brilliantly saved by Lee Changgeun for Farhan Shakor to use this brilliance to enhance his already-superannuated reputation by tapping-in the rebound (not that he should have missed out of respect).
Korea made a substitution there-&-then, which smacked of desperation but ‘proved’ a tactical masterstroke when said sub, Lee Gwanghun, headed Korea’s second equaliser from Changhoon’s free-kick. Jackson rightly dismissed Hameed’s efforts (“didn’t want to damage his face”), although the ‘fault’ lay as much with the referee’s assistant who clearly relished Changhoon’s in-swingers, given the free-kicks for which he flagged, for no obvious reason. Hammers and tongs continued to be used for most of the third quarter. But after that, even Iraq’s Ali Adnan was tiring…so what hope did others have?
Jackson must have had a dodgy meal in his local Korean restaurant. He wasn’t letting up about the “little attacking they’ve done” (they weren’t caught offside all evening) and grumpily insisted that you “couldn’t see the winner of this tournament coming from here,” even as a lively extra-time period unfolded while he sulked. Hameed was back in character by now (“he’ll probably relish the penalties,” noted Jackson, eventually getting one right). And the closing stages followed suit. ‘Stoke-on-Trent’ was stamped all over Iraq’s 119th-minute ‘winner’ as Shakor poked the ball home amid the chaos caused by Dhurgham Ismael’s long-throw, Adnan falling flat-out in the penalty box in joyous disbelief. Jackson chuntered again, at Iraq’s refusal to ‘see out’ the match by the corner flag. Yet he remained convinced Iraq had won and that “I’d bet on a comfortable victory for Uruguay.” Jackson is a fine pundit. But by this stage of this match, his cynicism was misplaced, although he could hardly have foreseen what followed.
Jung Hyuncheol, possibly thrown on for appearance money after Iraq scored, probably watched as disbelievingly as anyone when his speculative, if well-struck, 30-yarder changed trajectory off Humam Tareq’s heavy-metal hairstyle just sufficiently to take the ball past Hameed’s flamboyant dive, into the top corner (had he been a skinhead…). All a surely distraught Iraq had in their favour entering the shoot-out was the sense that this really was Hameed’s hour. This sense diminished as he flew off in the opposite direction to Korea’s early penalties. But each side botched one spot-kick and Hameed’s time arrived when he made a genuinely fine save from Lee Gwanghun’s spot-kick.
This physical and emotional drain on Iraq’s resources probably makes Uruguay warm favourites for their semi-final. Uruguay needed extra-time themselves. But theirs was a more leisurely affair – it could scarcely have been otherwise. And Saturday’s quarter-final winners have had a key 24 hours extra rest – the relevant experts consider four days the minimum ideal rest between matches. So maybe Jackson’s betting instincts are right, if not necessarily for the right reasons. But you can’t really argue against Iraq’s right to be in the semis. The Koreans would have got there having won only one game – against Cuba, the tournament’s worst team, in the 83rd-minute. And while that often happens in normal international football tournaments, this tournament, as this match readily demonstrated, is hardly normal.
So, the Under-20s World Cup is now France’s to lose. Les Bleuettes would have beaten Uzbekistan by more than four if their last half-dozen chances hadn’t fallen to substitute Alexy Bosetti. Bosetti explained to the watching world why he was sub with a series of not-quite-good-enough finishes as Uzbekistan’s defence wilted (even defenders who were subs themselves) under an impressive onslaught from a team who could have declared at half-time. France struck the post twice and whizzed a few more shots goalward before “Aresnal’s Yaya Sanogo” netted on 31 minutes, a chance which even Olivier Giroud or Gervinho might have struggled to miss…well, Giroud, anyway. Paul Pogba stared almost longingly into one corner of Asilbek Amanov’s goal as he waited to take a penalty moments later…and STILL sent him the wrong way.
Florian Thauvin, another potential star, took over the penalty duties before half-time to grab the goal his display already deserved. Kurt Zouma’s 64th-minute diving header rounded off the scoring, thanks to some very Gervinho-esque finishing from Sanogo and Bosetti’s afore-mentioned penalty box woes. And although the answer was “a bit of both” to the question “were France that good or Uzbekistan that bad?” France were mostly that good. Their rematch with Ghana promises much, as both sides have improved since they opened the tournament together nearly three weeks ago. The fear again is that Ghana’s extra-time exertions and day less to rest might prove the decisive factor.
Uruguay do possess endearing features, which haven’t always been transparent. Their corner-takers indicate routines through various methods of hitching up their shorts. At least the outstanding Diego Laxalt’s ‘distinctive’ hairstyle isn’t a mohican. And Stoke-on-Trent grabbed another winner in Peter Crouch stunt double Felipe Avenatti. This game’s supposed inadequacies were more down to the quality of the rest of the tournament than that of either side. Yet you felt like joining in when the crowd started whistling Spain’s unadventurous keep-ball in the second half.
The better side until then, Spain never regained the initiative. Where Gerard Deulofeu and Oliver caused problems in the first half – combining delightfully to set up one chance – both struggled as the 90th minute approached. Indeed, Deulofeu didn’t make it, being hauled off three minutes from full-time in favour of Denis Suarez – “on the books of Manchester City”, we were reminded as soon as Eurosport’s Dave Farrar saw Suarez warming up. Farrar was nevertheless confused. “A strange change to make,” he noted, poetically, clean forgetting that Spain made the exact same change against Mexico, to good effect.
Uruguay’s substitutions were the game-changers here, though. Coach Juan Verzeri has habitually introduced striker Diego Rolan to widespread acclaim for his boldness. And Rolan nearly won it in normal time, forcing a save from Daniel Sotres which left the Spanish keeper nursing a bleeding nose when the post interrupted his dive. Avenatti headed home the winner from a corner – his first touch and just about his last too. And while Spain’s centre-half Israel Puerto then missed an easier header, Rolan could have sealed matters from 40-yards after Sotres’s replacement Ruben Yanez was upended while making a clearance. “France will be celebrating tonight,” declared Farrar, over disturbing images of Verzeri and Baxalt in the sort of horizontal clinch which belongs way beyond the watershed. The hopes of the other three semi-finalists may rest largely on France celebrating too much.
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