Rahul Warrier has a look at the group stage of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup 2017. Some surprises, some exciting clashes and a taste of more to come.
Group A was one to look out for at the start of the World Cup given that it contained England, who had a penchant for performing well at age-level tournaments, Argentina, who are known for their production line of quality youngsters as well as hosts South Korea. Compared to these better known sides Guinea were bound to become the whipping boys of the group and were consequently unable to impress. A 3-0 loss to South Korea set the tone for the rest of their campaign; while Fikayo Tomori’s spectacular 50-yard own goal gave Guinea a point versus England in a 1-1 draw and some semblance of hope, despite a 1-1 draw against England, the gulf in quality was obvious when Argentina thumped Guinea 5-0 in the last round. Guinea’s Jules Keita (playing for Bastia) impressed in flashes and will look to build on next season in France.
Argentina was knocked out in the group stages for a second consecutive World Cup as one of the worst third-placed sides. But their record does not reflect their performances: they dominated England in terms of possession but weren’t as clinical in the 18-yard box, losing 3-0 to England and 2-1 to South Korea. This inability was the root of their early flight home. However, despite the red card versus England, Lautaro Martinez was excellent in the game against Guinea.
England and South Korea on the other hand did well enough to secure qualification without breaking a sweat, helped by winning their first games 3-0 easing the pressure. England face Costa Rica in the Round of 16, reward for beating Korea 1-0 and topping the group, with Jonjoe Kenny performing as well as his attacking teammates. The Koreans face tougher opposition in Portugal, but the home support will be crucial, and the two-goal Lee Seung-Woo, Barcelona starlet, will be motivated to impress.
Qualification scenarios were nearly made redundant in Group B in the end, but going into the campaign all but tiny Vanuatu would have held hopes of topping the table. But Venezuela proved a step above all from the start after beating Germany 2-0 in the first round, and slammed home their ambitions by thrashing Vanuatu 7-0, a game where highly-rated keeper Wuilker Faríñez took a note from Rogerio Ceni’s book to convert a penalty to score the fourth. They face Japan in the Round of 16, which will certainly be tricky opposition for the Venezuelans who’ve also scored the most number of goals (10) and kept cleansheets in all games. Sergio Córdova remains the top goalscorer with four goals, while Adalberto Peñaranda remains a top talent to watch with a goal and three assists; however it is Manchester City loanee Yangel Herrera who runs the midfield by his wish.
Progression wasn’t as simple for Mexico or Germany though. Mexico were fortunate to get all three points from the first game, where they needed a 94th minute winner against Vanuatu from Edson Álvarez to win 3-2. Álvarez put in a strong performance against Germany at the heart of defense. On the other hand Germany have failed to really impress, but they still go through as one of the four best third-placed teams.
Vanuatu’s 0-7 loss to Venezuela detract from their determined performances versus Mexico and Germany (both 2-3 losses). Bong Kalo’s three goals ensure that he will be remembered post-tournament for his efforts.
Zambia have been the surprise package in Group C, topping the group with six points after wins to Portugal and Iran. Fashion Sakala was the pick of the cast, with two goals from 270 minutes of action. He made runs at the Iranian defense, a game where they came back from 0-2 down to win 4-2 in the second half. Patson Daka, one of Red Bull Salzburg’s many talents that won the UEFA Youth League, also scored in that game with a powerful strike. They will fancy their chances at ousting Germany in the Round of 16.
Portugal found themselves staring at the end of a barrel but were saved by an Iranian own goal in the 86th minute in the third game to send them up as the second-places side. With talents like Diogo Dalot and Xadas, it was Diogo Gonçalves that scored two of Portugal’s four goals and at the heart of opportunities when he was on the field. But unlike them, Costa Rica didn’t have much to talk about, with just two goals scored and conceded, but they still find themselves in the next round, even if England is stiff opposition.
Iran were feisty and can find themselves cursing a second half collapse against Zambia, without which they would be in the next round. Rostov midfielder Reza Shekari was their best player, scoring three goals, and at the heart of Iran’s attacking moves, but they were let down by bad luck (Taheri’s own goal); however it bodes well for their future going forward.
Uruguay ride on the back of a solid defense into the Round of 16, conceding no goals in three games and scoring just three. They were led by the talented Rodrigo Bentancur, who pulled the strings from the middle of the park with his varied passing range. Nicolás Schiappacasse netted in the 2-0 win vs Japan to secure progression, but it was their defense that really stood out. Jose Luis Rodriguez was in particular vital to the side’s win vs Japan- contributing in both defense and attack.
Italy bounced back from the early loss to Uruguay to finish second- helped by Riccardo Orsolini’s performances. The Juventus loanee demonstrated his flair, speed and strength as he scored two crucial goals for Italy. A game against France only means an excellent battle with two quality sides. Japan also went through after securing a point versus Italy- a game where Ritsu Doan scored a brace. Along with a goal in the opening game, he has been a pest in opposition defenses, with his energy one of his main strengths. Takefusa Kubo, dubbed (unfairly) as the “Korean Messi”, was also impressive in his minutes, considering he was only 15.
South Africa were solid opposition but were outmatched in most games, but they did put in a solid effort in the 0-0 draw versus Uruguay. Braga’s Luther Singh did well when he played and will hope to carry that into the following season.
France piled on the goals in Group E (nine), and keeping clean-sheets in all three games to maintain their status as one of the favourites to lift the trophy. Jean-Kevin Augustin was the pick of the stars with three goals from just 128 minutes of action; Denis Will Poha was a handful against Vietnam with plenty of possession, dangerous set-pieces and a fantastic goal (and two assists in the tournament), while Marcus Thuram was impressive with a goal and assist himself. Praise must be reserved for Allan Saint-Maximin- given just 66 minutes, he scored two in the last game, one of which was an individual goal of the highest quality. The defense has also played its part, led by Issa Diop in particular. They face Italy in one of the round’s best games.
New Zealand went through as second-placed team, mainly helped by the 3-1 win vs Honduras. Myer Bevan made the most of their chances in the final third in that game with a brace, however this was sandwiched between two low tempo games against Vietnam and France. They face tough opposition in the US next round and will need to be on their best game to go through. On the other hand, Honduras and Vietnam didn’t have much to talk about in their games, with the final game setting them apart. Both sides were outclassed by France in particular demonstrating the gap in quality between the European giants and them.
The United States were expected to go through to the knockout stages given that they were arguably the strongest suit on paper in the group, and justified those expectations to some extent by emerging on top with five points. Joshua Sargent became the tournament’s find with some excellent attacking football, capped off by three goals from 249 minutes, with six out of nine shots on target. Liverpool loanee Brooks Lennon was also impressive with one goal and assist, however the defense also impressed, at least in the last two games where Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers put in solid displays as centre-backs. Along with Herrera, de la Torre and Adams, USA will be hoping to go far in the tournament, a path that starts versus New Zealand.
Senegal were solid in defense and mildly effective in attack, scoring two and conceding just one, an approach that saw them go through as the second-placed side. Forwards Aliou Badji and Ibrahima Niane were responsible for those goals and were impressive in patches, even though they only had three and four shots on target respectively out of ten. Having failed to score since the 15th minute of the first game, they will need to find goals to get past Mexico, even if their rock-solid defense stays strong.
Saudi Arabia are certainly an unknown force on many levels, but came back well from a 0-2 loss to Senegal to qualify. This is owed to Amin al Bukhari’s performance versus Ecuador, where he pulled off save after save to keep in the game (making ten saves in his two games), leaving Abdulrahman Al-Yami to score a brace to secure the win. Sami al Naji was also impressive in defense. However they face a tough outfit in Uruguay in the next round, against whom they will need a strong performance to overcome.
Lastly, Ecuador never recovered from conceding a late equalizer to USA to go out with just two points, but Herlin Lino, Jordan Sierra, Bryan Cabezas and Angelo Preciado all demonstrated signs of potential that they will hope to build on in future years.
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