The Under 20s World Cup: The Road To The Final

Mark Murphy ALWAYS enjoys Under-20s World Cup finals, even when normal people might not quite. However, the 2019 ‘edition’ has been open to all but the most miserable to enjoy.

QUARTER-FINALS:

Colombia 0 Ukraine 1

Italy 4 Mali 2

United States 1 Ecuador 2

Korea Republic 3 Senegal 3 (AET: 90 mins score 2-2 – Korea Republic won 3-2 on penalties)

After I hinted at Colombia, Mali and Senegal as part of a fab last four, Ukraine/Italy and Ecuador/Korea Republic semi-finals were no surprise.

The downfalls of those I identified as the ‘flair’ teams were varied. Colombia were awful, Mali and Senegal fell foul of chaos theories and the USA succumbed to a wonder goal and history. The quarter-final winners were all worthy, though. Three games were outstanding. And at least we were spared an Italy/Ukraine final, which would likely have resembled the first half of their semi-final.

In fairness, Ukraine were excellently-organised against Colombia, rather than out-and-out dull. The only goal, on 11 minutes, was an appropriate winner of a scrappy, disjointed match. Carlos Cuesta misjudged a tackle on Ukraine top-scorer Danylo Sikan. But not as badly as Colombian keeper Kevin Mier misjudged his rush straight past the incident, giving Sikan a free shot at the newly-emptied goal.

Colombia had time to recover their composure. But they had no composure. Every pass seemed misplaced, every run and tackle mistimed. Only in the closing stages did they offer a coherent threat. But they were undermined by Johan Carbonero’s 86th-minute dismissal. And Ukraine probably should have multiplied their lead before then, Heorhiy Tsitaishvili bouncing their best chance up over the bar from close-range.

Ukraine’s achievement was more impressive given that keeper Andriy Lunin was summoned to their senior squad’s Euro 2020 qualifiers before the game. Odd. But it certainly galvanised Ukraine’s defence to protect their number two number one Vladyslav Kucheruk. And Lunin would be back.

Another under-20s finals, another high-scoring Italian quarter-final victory over an expansive, defensively calamitous African side, although Italy’s 4-2 win over Mali was not quite as chaotically brilliant as their 3-2 win over Zambia in 2017.

Mali’s self-destruct button was in full working order. Ibrahima Kone sliced a deflected corner into his own net on 12 minutes. And Ousmane Diakite received a straight red card on 21 minutes, taking ball and opponent with a ferocity of tackle which divides opinion between those who think “the game’s gone” and those aware that Luca Pellegrini’s lower-leg could have gone with it.

Mali’s sense of injustice (Italy’s Salvatore Esposito could have seen red moments earlier) inspired their best football of a tournament in which they’ve produced plenty; Sekou Koita’s 38th-minute equaliser came from a three-man move which could be hung in the Louvre. This then inspired Italy’s best football in a tournament in which they’ve produced little.

They deservedly led again on the hour, although scorer Andrea Pinamonti was only played onside by the airborne arse of a Mali defender struggling to get up after injury. And it looked like 11-against-10 at last, as Italy, who had no shots on-or-off-target in the first half-hour, suddenly had loads. But Mali equalised in a 78th-minute flash, Mohamed Camara finishing off a quick counter after a rare Italian defensive lapse, four minutes before they slammed the self-destruct button again.

Keeper Youssouf Koita somehow over- AND under-stretched for a cross, before making a better effort to grab Pinamonti’s feet than the loose ball. Pinamonti thumped the penalty home. And two minutes later, Davide Frattesi headed home from the Diakite-shaped gap in Mali’s defence. Sekou Koita left a memorable final mark in stoppage-time, threatening great solo goals either side of winning a penalty which Alessandro Plizzari brilliantly saved. Mali’s early exit shouldn’t knock Koita off the road to soccer superstardom.

Those who raised their eyebrows at Ecuador becoming South American Under-20s champions (myself included), could drop them again after they beat Uruguay here. And after beating the USA in a lovely match, no-one was wondering, as commentator Paul Dempsey suggested nonsensically, what Argentina and Uruguay “must be thinking” at South America’s champions being South America’s sole semi-finalists.

Jose Cifuentes’ 30th-minute opener probably will be goal-of-the-tournament, despite the US defenders guided him to his shooting position, 30 yards out, like airport marshalls without their table-tennis bats. Tim Weah had no penalty-box room to swing a proverbial cat, let alone turn and swing a 36th-minute volley high into the net. But he did it anyway…the volley, not the cat thing. (and Weah provided a very 21st-century moment when he fizzed a shot at an unsuspecting crowd-member who was…CHECKING…HIS…PHONE…)

However, VAR strutted its stuff for Ecuador’s 42nd-minute what-turned-out-to-be-the-winner. An offside-looking Jhon Espinoza appeared to trundle Leonardo Campana’s cross over the line along his arm, after Gonzalo Plata had thumped a shot against the bar. But video assistance revealed that he was a tibia behind the ball. And video replays determined that whatever indeterminate part of his body Espinoza used, it was more likely his arse than his elbow.

The otherwise impressive Sebastian Soto should have netted from close range on 58 minutes but side-netted instead (“he was never going to miss, was he?” said Dempsey, fooled by the net moving, “but he has”). Sub Uly Llanez Jr would surely have shamed Uly Llanez Snr with his diving. US keeper David Ochoa produced a wonder save from Alexander Alvarado’s header. Diego Palacios headed the resultant corner against the bar. And an otherwise impressive US side maintained the nation’s proclivity for losing major tournament quarter-finals.

If Korea Republic meant it, it was a genuinely innovative strategy. Bore the bells off their opposition before half-time and overpower them after it. Tt worked against Japan, and was working against Senegal, despite the Koreans falling behind to Cavin Diagne’s 37th-minute thunderstrike. But while the ultimate result was the same, the road to it was radically different.

Technological change is so fast that VARs will soon be THE referees. In this game’s lunatic second half (and beyond), Uruguay’s Leodan Gonzalez, appeared happy to let the tech take control. Korea Republic levelled with Lee Kang-In’s 62nd-minute VAR-given penalty for a blatant off-the-ball push on Lee Ji-Sol which somehow no-one, not even the great (John) Helm-sman in the com-box, noticed.

Technology isn’t biased, though. Senegal retook the lead with a second/third VAR-penalty. Sleepy Gonzalez should have noticed Lee Jae-Ik fore-arming the ball just inside the box. And his on-field assistant Mr Magoo CERTAINLY should have noticed Lee Gwang-Yeon nearly diving at Ibrahima Niane’s feet to block the spot-kick…if he’d been looking along the goal-line, Gwang-Yeon would have left his line of vision. Niane netted the retake.

Korea Republic levelled when Ji-Sol superbly timing his run to head in a near-post corner in the eighth of ten largely VAR-induced stoppage-time minutes. And, momentum grabbed, they led on 96 minutes, Cho Young-Wook giving Ji-Sol’s fabulous pass the finish-with-aplomb it deserved. But they then defended in un-necessary depth. And on 122 minutes, Amadou Ciss side-footed us to penalties.

Re-enter VAR. Senegal keeper Dialy N’Diaye twitched millimetres off his line to save Jun’s shoot-out spot-kick, just as things were edging Senegal’s way after two early Korean failures. Jun emphatically netted the retake. Two skied Senegalese penalties later, the Koreans were in the semi-finals. And the technology went off for another lie down, readying to rule again.

SEMI-FINALS

Ukraine 1 Italy 0

Korea Republic 1 Ecuador 0

Both semi-finals, eventually, sealed the tournament’s legacy as a classic. Although Italy striker Gianluca Shamacca might currently think otherwise.

Shamacca has largely been a first half of his last name at these finals. The harder he tried against Ukraine’s mind-numbingly well-drilled rearguard, the more Shamacca he got. And Paul Dempsey became more incredulous with every Italian substitution. So, Shamacca was destined to score. And it would matter. He did. And it did, but not how anyone could have imagined.

On 92 minutes, with his back to goal, 18yards out, he controlled the ball on his thigh, turned sharply and arrowed a stunning right-foot volley into the net. It was hard to know whether to guffaw at or be gob-smacked by his sudden metamorphosis into a striker WITH a clue. There was a VAR check, natch. But it was surely only cursory. Ukraine defender Valerii Bondar fell over as Shamacca turned. But the striker hadn’t metamorphosised eyes in the back of his head.

VAR replays showed Bondar hurtling into Shamacca and referee Rafael Claus putting his whistle to his lips, only to rightly baulk at blowing it. No foul, probably. No clear and obvious error, certainly. But Claus checked anyway…and blew it. No goal. No time for Italy to score ‘again.’ Ecuador’s Christmas come early.

Italian players fumed or cried, or both. But they’d paid for their own profligacy. The first half was appalling, the half-time highlights padded out with a Shamacca miscontrol in the penalty box, both sides favouring counter-attack, with no attacks to counter. Italy were the first to change tack, Pinamonti thumping their clearest chance into keeper Lunin’s barrel-chest on 52 minutes. However, 13 minutes later, Ukraine’s Serhii Buletsa expertly swept home Yukhym Konoplia’s low right-wing cross from near the penalty-spot.

Vladyslav Supriaha showed why he was a sub when clean through six minutes later, visibly losing confidence with every heavy touch before pulling his right-foot shot narrowly yet horribly wide. Then, on 79 minutes, Ukraine’s goalscoring defender Denys Popov…er…popped off after two bookings. Lunin, though, showed why the seniors took him out of school during term-time. Ukraine’s Oleksii Kashchuk even spanked the bar with a late effort. And on 89 minutes, Italy sub Christian Capone sliced horribly wide. Then things went all Man City/Spurs in stoppage-time.

No such dramas in the second semi-final, not with England’s Michael Oliver refereeing. And while Korea Republic’s win over Ecuador was very watchable, especially in the first half, there were no true dramas of any kind.

The 38th-minute winner was brilliant, though. Brilliant thinking, anyway, Lee Kang-In sliding a quickly-taken free-kick inside Ecuador’s micro-momentarily dozy Gonzalo Plata, straight into Choi Jun’s stride pattern, Jun curling his shot into the net. A minute earlier, Ecuador’s Leonardo Campana hit the bar with a fabulous left-foot 20-yarder after back-flicking the ball straight into his own stride pattern. And Campana’s frustrations were to match his team’s.

Chances had been few-and-far-between. Defences were “on top” as the euphemism for dull football goes. But here they were on top out of necessity. Chances flowed in the final quarter, though. Both keepers were busied before Campana blazed an 89th-minute off the underside of the…roof of the stand.

As commentators usually ask in such circumstances, was that the chance? Well…no. Three minutes later, Campana did everything pretty much right, heading down Diego Palacios’s wonderful left-wing cross, on-target, yards to Korean custodian Lee Gwang-Yeon’s left. Gwang-Yeon somehow made up those yards. And Gwan-Yeon was busy to the end…and beyond. Oliver ended proceedings as another Ecuador effort proceeded goalwards but Gwang-Yeon cut short any Clive Thomas flashbacks (ask your parents) by saving at full-stretch.

We’ve long-known that there would be a new name on the trophy. But there were surely better novelty final pairings than Ukraine/Korea Republic. Nonetheless, there is little denying their right to be there. Unless your name is Gianluca Shamacca, that is.