The next edition of an important English dictionary looks set, at this rate, to use an action shot of this year’s Under-20s World Cup to illustrate its definition of ‘curate’s egg.’ The tournament has had its moments so far, and has got noticeably better as I’ve been typing. But for every Colombia/France, there’s been one… well… Colombia/Mali. And although there have been enough spectacular moments to fill TV trailers to infinity and beyond, the company which produces Mogadon would have been in administration if their financial future relied on sales at other games – hello, Portugal/Uruguay.
As predicted, South American sides have impressed, with Uruguay considerably improving from first game to second, thanks in the main to the return from suspension of diminutive playmaker Adrian Luna (probably short for ‘lunatic’ to judge by his past disciplinary indiscretions and some unorthodox offences in Uruguay’s fascinating 1-1 draw with New Zealand). Predictable too have been England’s struggles, although their 0-0 draw with Argentina was a Uruguayan-scale improvement on the tournament’s eye-closing opener against Korea DPR.
The favourites – the afore-mentioned Colombian hosts, Brazil and Spain – have control of their groups. And mightily impressive Nigeria will actually be disappointed to have only scored ten goals in their opening two games. Brazil have yet to hit any heights, which scarcely mattered against a very ordinary Austria but nearly did against a very skilful Egypt. Brazil/Egypt’s first-half was the opening day’s highlight and probably remains the best half of the tournament so far.
Spain have won 4-1 and 2-0 without hitting any heights either. They only beat Costa Rica ‘eventually’ and were narrowly second-best for 64 minutes of an entertaining, technically brilliant encounter with Ecuador, only taking the lead in and control of the game after Ecuador’s Christian Ona received his second booking. That said, Spanish striker Rodrigo took the phrase “not afraid to miss” totally the wrong way, while giving watching Bolton fans disturbing flashbacks to his Reebok appearances last season.
Spain are certainly in the best group (C), their Ecuador victory vying with Costa Rica’s 3-2 win over Australia for ‘game of the tournament’ to date, alongside Colombia’s 4-1 dismantling of a decent French side and Nigeria’s joyously outplaying a limited Croatia 5-2. Star player of the week was New Zealand’s over-worked custodian Stefan Marinovic, who has kept the All Whites in the competition with a string-and-a-half of world-class saves and a furrowed brow which demands obedience from defenders. One save against Luna and the Uruguayans (Eurosport commentator Wayne Boyce’s obsession with the Espanyol-bound star reduced his team-mates to the status of a backing band) was in Gordon Banks/Pele territory (Joe Corrigan/Allan Clarke territory for anyone looking for an alternative spectacular save benchmark).
England’s star is Billy Knott. With a name culled from a 1970s football comic and an all-action style straight from a pinball machine, Knott has grabbed attention in inverse proportion to his footballing class, and will surely do SOMEthing major before England’s tournament finishes – although quite what this will be is anybody’s guess. This might be later than some think (although the group games are coming so fast that many will know their fate by now), as the prospect of the four best third-placed teams reaching the knock-out stages makes playing for three 0-0s a logical tactic.
The ‘standard’ third-place finish would be one win, two defeats and a likely minus goal difference; although Guatemala’s defensive inabilities might yet provide Croatia with three points and a positive goal difference in Group D. Three 0-0s, with three points and a zero goal difference, trumps the standard. And whilst England weren’t playing for a 0-0 against the Koreans (were they?), they’d be within their rights to do so against Mexico in their last Group F game. There’s more than one way to three draws, as the contrast between England and New Zealand has amply demonstrated. England have huffed and puffed where New Zealand have allied sharp counter-attacking with brave defending and, of course, octopus-hands Marinovic.
Cameroon’s finishing helped, as did their back-four’s collective need of the toilet whenever a quality high ball came their way. You suspect that there would be plenty more examples of Sergio Tchaha’s pinpoint accurate 20-yard header past his own keeper (emphasis on the ‘haha’, then), if they weren’t destined for an early exit as a result. Portugal’s winner against them by the impressive Nelson Olivera was set up by two schoolboy errors – the sort of eyes-wide-shut aerial ‘prowess’ which used to permeate my brief Sunday League division seven career.
Until Portugal’s victory, Group B was the inevitable ‘Group of Death.’ Yet all four teams have realistic qualification chances – one of the few positives of culling only a third of the finalists after the group stages. One of those third will be the afore-mentioned, hapless Guatemala. Eurosport pundit Leroy Rosenior suggested they were better than when shipping five against Nigeria – who should have had ten. He was wrong. The five changes Los Chapines made after that defeat only demonstrated why they’d been subs in the first place, as they helped their team to a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of unheralded last-16 qualifiers, Saudi Arabia. “The experience won’t do them any harm,” noted Rosenior. After the Saudi’s fifth goal, about the fifteenth time they breached a back-four squarer than a high court judge, Rosenior conceded that it might.
The Saudis were second to qualify for the last-16, after Colombia secured their place with two performances of different yet equally impressive quality. Had France’s Alexandre Lacazette found an empty net to make it 2-2 against the borderline-rampant hosts, there’d have been a different tale to tell. But he didn’t, and the Colombians skilfully wrapped up a 4-1 victory. Their 2-0 win (exactly matching Spain’s results) against a (ahem!) ‘robust’ Mali side was as laudable in its own way. There was only one minute’s stoppage time at the end of the first half despite half the Colombian team having been stretchered off by then.
Eurosport’s Tim Caple called the half ‘eventful’ but quickly advised that few events had been “football-related.” And he suggested we would be “ending with less than 11 players on the pitch.” He probably meant less than eleven players each but Mali looked ready for the challenge. They did, at least, spread the bookings around a bit, which allowed them to keep 11 on the pitch until the 89th minute – referee Istvan Vad having to check a long list of names – was it really only five? – before confirming that Kalifa Traore was indeed about to bag a brace of cautions. Colombia had tried to play football in the midst of all of this and had only occasionally succumbed to the temptations of retaliation, receiving four cautions themselves. And when the stylish James Rodriguez made it 2-0, moments after Traore’s dismissal, justice was done.
It was done, too, to Croatia, by the magical feet of the Nigerians, who were far less profligate in their second five-goal haul of the competition than in their first. For a while, the sides were trading trademark goals – Nigeria hitting spectacular and stylish ones while the Croats responded with ordinary headers from free-kicks. This inability to deal with quality crosses could be Nigeria’s downfall, But it’s difficult to yet see what else will be. Croatia’s hammering was particularly satisfying after their midfielder Mario Ticinovic followed up a potential leg-breaking studs-up challenge on Olarenwaju Kayode with a sly smile to a nearby team-mate and much faux-concern for the stricken Nigerian.
He also offered a hypocritical apologetic handshake to any Nigerians within reach but was batted away by the prone Kayode. Sadly, however, the “sorry, I didn’t mean it” act was enough to persuade the referee that he had only seen a yellow card offence after all. This was rare indifferent refereeing. Despite the presence of Alex Ferguson’s favourite football arbiter Mark Clattenburg and Neil Lennon’s number one, Willie Collum, the officiating has kept a refreshing distance from centre stage. The worst of it has been a tendency towards bookings for innocuous-looking tackles. Even by the time Ecuador’s Ona was receiving his second yellow against Spain, the host broadcaster hadn’t been able to find footage of anything worthy of the first one. And at least one producer must have exclaimed “he was booked for…that???” – with New Zealand’s Dakota Lucas cautioned for a particularly blatant piece of nothing whatsoever against Uruguay.
TV, though, has produced my star man of the week, Eurosport analyst Gary O’Reilly. Yes, Crystal Palace fans, the very same. A tendency to start his more dramatic contributions with “I’ll tell you what…” brings Ron Atkinson horribly to mind. But the Big Ron comparisons end right there and then (although not knowing what Egypt’s prayers of celebration after their goal against Panama were “all about” was dangerously close to a Big Ron-ism). O’Reilly has been a witty, insightful joy, passing the “tell us something we don’t already know” test with ease His tactical appraisals suggest a managerial career he hasn’t (yet) had. And he tells it like it is without any sense of being controversial for effect. “Get up, son. You know what you’re doing and so do I” was his glorious dismissal of a Panamanian dive.
As with last month’s Women’s World Cup, Eurosport’s commentators are audibly reaping the benefits of covering so much football at this level – their extensive coverage of this spring’s South American under-20s championship proving particularly useful as it served as a qualifying tournament for this tournament – likewise last year’s European Under-19s finals. And even when Jon Driscoll treated his commentary on Portugal/Cameroon as a stand-up routine, it wasn’t at the expense of his job – describing and contextualising the action. “The Pascual Guerrero Stadium is named after a poet,” Driscoll noted, adding: “which is refreshing as they are normally named after megalomaniacs.” Guerrero may have been a megalomaniac poet, of course. But the Joseph S. Blatter Stadium cannot be far away.
The tournament is hotting up – metaphorically, anyway. Many of the opening week’s games were at a pace which suggested searing heat, but the Colombian weather has not been like that, with more than one encounter played to the accompaniment of surface water on the pitch and mini-monsoons on the head. Scheduling four games a day has meant that the group stages won’t be so interminable, although it remains to be seen whether three games in six days for each team will have a debilitating effect on the quality of the last-16 matches. But the second round was demonstrably better than the first – the last day of matches a goal-filled extravaganza matching the pre-tournament hype…and enough to require a slight change of tone for this piece. It’s the business end from here on in. And if recent improvements continue, we could be in for a classic tournament yet.
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