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Argentina and Brazil have dominated the U20 World Cup with stellar records in the tournament. Thus, naturally the spotlight tends to be on the duo, along with their fellow South American countries during the tournament. Tom Robinson has a look back at the recently concluded tournament from a South American perspective.
Having spluttered and stumbled to a 4th place finish in the Sudamericano earlier this year, expectations surrounding Brazil were surprisingly low for one of the perennial challengers. Preparations were further thrown into confusion as Alexandre Gallo was sacked less than a month before the curtain raised on the U20 World Cup. Nevertheless, new man Rogério Micale worked wonders to guide the Canarinha all the way to the final and get within two minutes away from taking Serbia to penalties before Nemanja Maksimovic’s dramatic 118th minute winner.
Micale’s superior knowledge of tactics and youth football were a breath of fresh air after Gallo’s confused reign. To be fair to Gallo, he did choose the squad, making wholesale changes to the side that under-performed at the Sudamericano, jettisoning the likes of Gabriel Barbosa, Thalles, Yuri Mamute and Lucas Evangelista, whilst calling up Danilo, Boschilia, Andreas Pereira and Gabriel Jesus. The decision to leave out Nathan and Gerson, two of the better performers, did raise questions about Gallo’s suitability however and perhaps deprived Micale of an even better group to work with.
A 100% record that saw Brazil top a difficult Group E containing Nigeria and Hungary quickly rendered such questions moot. Though clearly having a preferred starting line-up, Micale showed his ability to influence the game as substitutions played key roles in changing the momentum in the first two fixtures. With the opening game tied at 2-2 against Nigeria at the break, Boschilia – who had played a starring role at the U17 World Cup in 2013 – was introduced, scoring one and creating the other, as Brazil ran out 4-2 winners. Similarly, Andreas Pereira proved decisive, coming off the bench at half time against Hungary with Brazil trailing to Bence Mervo’s early goal, to assist Danilo and then score a late penalty himself in a dramatic 2-1 victory. Brazil were already showing more character and fighting spirit than in the Sudamericano, aided by Micale’s positive, proactive alterations from the dugout.
Their mettle was tested yet again in the knock out stages as twice they had to rely on penalty shoot outs to beat Uruguay and Portugal after 0-0 draws after extra time. Particularly against a very strong Portugal, Brazil had to weather a storm and had goalkeeper Jean, selected ahead of the impressive Marcos, to thank as they progressed to the semis. With a settled back four of Jorge, Lucão, Marlon and Joao Pedro, shielded by the double pivot of captain Danilo and Alef, Brazil displayed great organisation and discipline. Despite this established spine, Micale had shown his willingness to adapt by dropping first choice striker Judivan for the more mobile Jean Carlos, whose forays from the bench had displayed an ability to create space for the triumvirate of attacking midfielders behind him.
In the semi-final came Brazil’s most assertive and complete performance as they took Senegal apart with a 5-0 drubbing; a panacea of sorts for their humbling at the hands of Germany in Belo Horizonte almost a year ago. However, in the final their streak without conceding a goal was finally ended after 571 minutes when Mandic scored for Serbia and, despite Pereira’s brilliant equaliser shortly after, Brazil were unable to hold on for what would have been a third shoot out. Serbia had proved themselves to be the kings of extra time, having won all four of their knock out games in 120 minutes. It would be hard to begrudge Serbia their first global title since independence and the likes of keeper Predrag Rajkovic, defender Milos Veljkovic, midfielders Nemanja Maksimovic, Andrija Zivkovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic put in consistently colossal performances throughout the competition.
It may have been close but no cigar but Brazil could leave with their heads held high after a vastly improved performance with virtually a newly assembled side. All action midfielder Danilo walked away with the Silver Ball and looks a tailor-made Dunga-style player, while Marlon and Joao Pedro – two of the survivors from the Sudamericano – were consistently impressive at the back. Marcos Guilherme was another who maintained his place and though his star didn’t shine as bright as in the Sudamericano he was an ever-present, chipping in with two goals.
Of the newly integrated players, Andreas Pereira made some eye-catching contributions but was fairly inconsistent whereas Palmeiras’ Gabriel Jesus was perhaps the most pleasant revelation. The 18-year-old may have only scored once but was a constant outlet and his combination of skill and work rate was vital to how Micale’s side played. Of the lot, Boschilia was probably the standout performer and was emblematic of the rebirth of the team. One of the best players at the U17s two years ago, the Sao Paulo playmaker was bafflingly left out of the Sudamericano but returned to show just what Brazil had missed as he played a starring role in the run to the final. His is a name you will be seeing plenty more of.
Brazil aside, it was an underwhelming tournament for the other South American nations. The biggest disappointment was Argentina, winners of the Sudamericano in February, who failed to qualify from the group stage without even mustering a victory. A talented squad bolstered by Getafe’s Emiliano Buendia and Boca duo Adrian Cubas and Cristian Pavon twice threw away the lead against Panama, were picked off by Ghana and failed to break down Austria drawing 0-0 despite having 27 efforts on goal, leaving the Albiceleste to scratch their heads after their early exit. The likes of Angel Correa, Emanuel Mammana and Augusto Batalla show there is talent there but once again mismanagement, this time in the form of Humbertito Grondona, proved to Argentina’s undoing.
Colombia and Uruguay both fared marginally better, each making it to the Round of 16, but there will be a sense that both could have gone further. Colombia qualified in second place from Group C behind the formidable Portugal and above semi-finalists Senegal on goal difference to set up a clash against USA. The game followed a similar pattern to much of their Sudamericano campaign; resolute defending marshalled by Juan Quintero, dominating possession with a blend of nice, neat passing and physicality in the middle but not quite being able to find the killer edge in the final third despite a good array of attacking talent. Rubio Rubin scored against the run of play to put the US ahead and Colombia had a chance to equalise with a late penalty but Jarlan Barrera saw his effort saved by the impressive Zack Steffen to send the Cafateros packing.
A number of the squad such as the aforementioned Quintero, Álvaro Montero, Andres Tello, Alexis Zapata, Steven Lucumi and Rafael Santos Borre should go on to have very good careers but ultimately Colombia didn’t have that one outstanding talent à la James Rodriguez or Juan Fernando Quintero to elevate them to the next level.
Uruguay too were left to rue a crucial penalty miss as they also exited at the Round of 16 having not given the best account of themselves either in New Zealand. Despite being the only side to beat Serbia thanks to a heroic performance from goalkeeper Gaston Guruceaga in their first match, Uruguay scraped through an admittedly tricky Group D in second place only on the drawing of lots ahead of surprise package Mali, who spearheaded by Golden Ball winner Adama Traore eventually claimed third place having beaten Germany on the way. An overly risk-averse strategy and uncharacteristic errors from a usually watertight back four meant that it was no surprise that Uruguay played out a 0-0 stalemate against old rivals Brazil in the knock out stages before losing on penalties.
In the end it was young forward Rodrigo Amaral – a player I tipped to star – who missed the decisive spot kick as Brazil continued their march to the final. Visibly distraught, it was a cruel way for Amaral and Uruguay to go out but with the likes of Guruceaga, Pereiro, Nandez, Arambarri and Acosta there are still plenty of future senior internationals being produced by a country that continues to punch above its weight.
Brazil may have walked away empty handed but after their failure to qualify for the 2013 edition it was a welcome return to prominence for one of world football’s principal producers of young talent. As for the others, it’s back to the drawing board and, though it was a shame not to have seen Correa, Pereiro or Santos Borre given the opportunity to truly announce themselves to a wider public, there will be a number of players who featured in New Zealand who, like Oscar, James or Aguero have done for example, will go on to become household names in the not too distant future.
For more reading on the U20 World Cup, head this way.
Written by Tom Robinson