As the Fifa Under-17 World Cup enters its business end, the usual suspects look to ramp up their game in the quarterfinals.
The favourites came through their Round of 16 matches, barring free-scoring France who were eliminated in a close-run affair against Spain, who came back from a goal down to set up a mouth-watering clash against Iran.
Three European teams, two African representatives and one team each from Asia, North America and South America progressed to the last eight, as the spotlight shifts towards the efforts to make it to the summit clash on the 28th at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata.
Mali vs Ghana - 5 pm, 21st October, Guwahati
The two African teams, both among the favourites for the title, meet earlier than they would have expected as Mali, the second-highest scorers, meet Ghana, the tightest defence in the tournament.
This will be a repeat of the 2017 U-17 African Cup of Nations final in Gabon, where Mali beat Ghana 1-0, thanks to Mamadou Samake’s strike. Les Aiglonnets won their second straight title but Ghana are two-time champions at this level, but their last semifinal appearance came way back in 2007.
Mali have notched up 13 goals in four games, two behind the eliminated France. Lassana N’Diaye is the tournament’s joint top scorer with five goals, and with other Golden Boot contender France’s Amine Gouiri out, he will look to add to his tally.
They got off to a rocky start in the tournament, losing 3-2 to Paraguay but beat Turkey and New Zealand comprehensively to set up a last-16 clash against Iraq. They came through from a potential banana-skin encounter with flying colours, pumping five past the hapless Iraqis. Mali have had the most shots, 107, of any team in the tournament and have also hit the woodwork the most times (5).
On the other hand, Ghana have been quietly impressive but USA may have shown Mali the blueprint to stop the Eaglets. Against the USA, coach Samuel Febin was furious that his team had a higher number of shots but could not convert. This has been a central theme to Ghana’s play, who have shown pace and physicality like during the 4-0 demolition of hosts India.
They eliminated another African team Niger 2-0 in the previous round but they are the lowest scorers (7) of the remaining teams but have the third highest shots (85). Eric Ayiah has hit his stride over the last two games, scoring three goals, and along with winger Sadiq Ibrahim and goalkeeper Danlad Ibrahim, will be their key players.
USA vs England - 8 pm, 21st October, Goa
US coach John Hackworth, in his third stint with the Under-17 Stars and Stripes team, has exclaimed that this is the best team he has ever managed. It’s hard to disagree with him, given the talent at his disposal.
Led by the mercurial talents that are Josh Sargent and Tim Weah and the creative graft of Andrew Carleton, they thrashed Paraguay 5-0 in their last match with Weah notching a hat-trick, including a goal of the tournament contender from range.
Sargent, who scored four goals for the U-20’s in their run to the quarter-final, has scored two but has done well to hold up the ball to get his team-mates into the action. Carleton with two goals and three assists has been one of the team’s stars and what has been refreshing to see is that the team has not been afraid to sacrifice the fluid play that they’re capable of, in order to try and secure a result.
In contrast, England just about scrapped through on penalties against Japan.
All of England’s age-group teams have had a golden summer, and won the U-20 World Cup and the U-19 Euros. Steve Cooper’s side looks to extend that run in India but the task would be easy.
Jadon Sancho left the English camp as he was recalled by Borussia Dortmund, and the English struggled to break the Japanese down. Manchester United youngster, Angel Gomes, replaced Sancho for the match but he, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Manchester City starlet Phil Foden will have to be combative in midfield to get past a formidable US team.
The form book and team strength on paper dictate that US go into the game as favourites but at a time, when the senior team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, they will not be taking anything for granted.
Spain vs Iran - 5 pm, 22nd October, Kochi
La Rojita will come into this game brimming with confidence as they downed France in a tense last-16 clash. The came from behind to knock a strong Les Bleuets team out, against all expectations.
The Euro U-17 champions looked to have gone off the boil after going down to Brazil 2-1 in their opener in Kochi but recorded facile wins over Niger and DPR Korea to stroll through to the knockout stages.
Barcelona starlet Abel Ruiz has scored three goals and showed remarkable composure in putting away a late penalty against France. They have shown great attacking prowess but the defence is susceptible to the occasional counter.
In Asia’s last remaining representatives, Iran, they come up against a team high on confidence and shooting at will. This is the farthest they have ever gone in the competition and there’s a strong possibility that they may topple Spain at Kochi.
Iran have been tactically astute, have countered at will and have been willing to cede possession to their opponents, happy to play without the ball. They are only one of two teams, alongside Brazil to have won all four of their games in regulation time.
A 4-0 thrashing of Germany really made onlookers stand up and take notice, as Abbas Chamanyan has managed to make the AFC U16 runners-up one of the tournament’s most dangerous teams.
Germany vs Brazil - 8 pm, 22nd October, Kolkata
The younger Mannschaft seem to draw the champions at this tournament. They have been eliminated by the eventual victors in three of the last four tournaments while elimination in Chile 2015 came at the hands of Croatia.
Germany lost to Spain in the semis of the Euros, and they’ve looked the part in India but for a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Iran. Their defensive vulnerabilities were thoroughly exposed in a high-intensity match as the Asians picked them off at will.
A lot will be riding on the shoulders of Jan Fiete-Arp, the Hamburg striker, knocking in three goals in India. He also netted seven goals in European qualifying, and he will be Germany’s main threat on Sunday.
Brazil have been an efficient unit and Carlos Amadeu’s team have done well, even without captain Vinicius who is not a part of the squad for the World Cup.
A Canarinha have reached the last four 7 times and have won the tournament three times, but have not won the tournament since 2003. Amadeu’s first U-17 tournament in 2015 ended with a loss to Nigeria, the eventual winners.
In India, they have beaten Spain, DPR Korea and Niger before dispatching of Honduras in their last game. They have really not been tested apart from their opener against Spain and though Germany is expected to be a stiff test, Brazil should come out on top nonetheless. Alan, the no 10 from Palmeiras who made the transition from futsal to football at 11, has been the team’s main creative influence, pulling the strings for his team.
Kolkata will be witness to another cracker, prior to the final as support for Brazil will not be lax in the city.