A riveting contest is on the cards when England and Spain lock horns in the first-ever all- European final of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup, which will have a new champion on Saturday in what has been a record-breaking tournament on the sheer volume of fans thronging the stadiums.
After three weeks of high intensity and top-quality football, only England and Spain remain in contention for the top honour. And both sides will be seek their first title when they play in front of a capacity 66,000-odd crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.
A goal feast can be expected from two of the most aggressive sides in the tournament – England have scored 18 goals so far while Spain have netted 15. This is the Young Lions’ fourth appearance while Spain have ended up as losing finalists on three earlier occasions in 1991, 2003 and 2007.
It will also be a repeat of the European U-17 Championship match in Croatia in May, when Spain had emerged winners via penalty shootout after a 2-2 stalemate in regulation time. A win for England will also herald an unprecedented year for their junior teams. Their U-20 team had won the World Cup in Korea earlier this year while their Under-19 side clinched the European Championships.
In its bid to wake up a “sleeping giant”, Fifa had allotted this U-17 World Cup to India in December 2013, but this edition is turning out to be record-breaking one in terms of most spectator attendance and number of goals scored. With two matches – the third place playoff and the final – remaining, the total number of spectators from the 50 matches so far has already logged 1,224,027, which is a mere 6949 less than the earlier record attendance of 1,230,976 in the first edition of the tournament in China in 1985.
With the Kolkata crowd expected to turn up in large numbers in the third place match between Brazil and Mali as well, this tournament is set to become the most attended of any Fifa U-17 or U-20 tournament. It is likely to go past the 13,09,929 spectator mark that turned up in the 2011 Colombia edition of the Fifa U-20 World Cup.
This India edition is also set to become the highest scoring tournament with 170 goals from 50 matches so far, just two goals behind the earlier highest of 172 during the 2013 edition in the United Arab Emirates. With three more goals from the remaining two matches, this edition will have the best goal average since the format was changed in 2007 to a 24-team affair from the earlier 16- team participation.
On form, there is very little to differentiate between the two though England may start slight favourites having shocked pre-tournament favourites Brazil in the semi-finals while also having played all but one of their six earlier matches at the same stadium.
Steve Cooper’s side also is the only unbeaten side in the tournament while Spain had lost to Brazil in their tournament opener. England’s only blemish so far had been their inability to beat Japan in the regulation time in the round of 16 – a game they won on penalties.
Spain and England have now met three times in the final of European U-17 Championships. The ‘La Rojita’ were triumphant in 2007, before the Three Lions extracted their revenge three years later. The Spaniards emerged victorious in May, but only after a nail-biting climax. England had almost won the title but Spain grabbed an equaliser from the last kick of the extra time before prevailing over their opponents in the penalty shootout 4-1.
Ruiz vs Brewster
Both sides enjoy hogging the ball for long spells but Spain, famous for their tika-taka style, will undoubtedly have more possession, as they have been doing all tournament. There will also be some individual battles on display, with the one between star England striker Rhian Brewster and his Spain counterpart and captain Abel Ruiz being the pick of them. Both of them have been instrumental in taking their respective teams to the final.
Brewster, who sent Brazil packing with his second hat-trick of the tournament, and Ruiz, whose double strike against Mali sealed a place in the final for Spain, have scored seven and six goals respectively and they are in the running for the Golden Boot Award.
England are expected to play their tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation with Curtis Anderson between the sticks behind the back four ably marshaled by captain Joel Latibeaudiere, Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo and Steven Sessegnon.
Cooper is expected to start with Tashan Oakley-Boothe and George McEachran at the central midfield while putting Callum Hudson-Odoi and Philip Foden at the flanks. Morgan Gibbs-White is expected to play behind center forward Brewster.
Spain, packed with players from famous academies of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, started with 4-3-3 formation against Brazil and continued it till their round of 16 match against France. But coach Santiago Deni later tweaked it to 4-2-3-1 formation in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
Juan Miranda, Hugo Guillamon, Victor Chust and Mateu Jaume Morey have been the preferred back four for coach Deni while Cesar Gelabert, Antonio Blanco and Mohamed Moukhliss would be at the midfield to support center forward Ruiz and wingers Sergio Gomez and Ferran Torres.
Valencia youngster Torres has been in great form with his mesmerizing runs down on the right flank while Real’s Gelabert has also picked up form in the knockout stages, sending Ruiz on goal on two occasions in the semis.
England: Curtis Anderson, Josef Bursik, William Crelin; Timothy Eyoma, Joel Latibeaudiere, Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo, Lewis Gibson, Steven Sessegnon, Morgan Gibbs White, Tashan Oakley Boothe; Conor Gallagher, Angel Gomes, Nya Kirby, George McEachran; Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson Odoi, Philip Foden, Emile Smith Rowe, Rhian Brewster, Daniel Loader.
Spain: Alvaro Fernandez, Mateu Jaume, Juan Miranda, Hugo Guillamon, Victor Chust, Antonio Blanco, Ferran Torres, Mohamed Moukhliss, Abel Ruiz, Sergio Gomez, Nacho Diaz, Pedro Ruiz. Marc Vidal, Alvaro Garcia, Eric Garcia, Diego Pampin, Jose Lara, Cesar Gelabert, Carlos Beitia, Victor Perea, Alfonso Pastor.
(With inputs from PTI)