Monday, August 1, 2011

Through The Looking Glass

The Under-20 World Cup is always an enjoyable tournament as the world’s top prospects usually showcase a combination of raw hunger and youthful abandon that makes for some genuinely intriguing soccer. While the best and brightest strive to either justify their absence from their club’s pre-season or attract richer suitors, the tournament also offers a glimpse into the future. With that in mind I’ll attempt to read the tea leaves of three teams taking their respective programs in very different directions - or none at all - based on their opening round performances.

For those of you hoping the Spanish success of the past few years would fade away with its current crop of superstars should probably stop reading. Greg has asked me to keep an eye out for a tournament Best XI and at this point I’m considering nominating the entire Spain attack. Costa Rica are no slouches, but the likes of Romeu, Rodrigo, and Pacheco ran circles around the young Ticos for vast portions of the game and could have made the score even more unflattering than the 4-1 final.

Despite at times struggling to cope with the athletic Costa Rican attack, the Spaniards put in a performance that would have made their senior side proud. One can expect the struggles of the Spanish defense to become less frequent as the team matures into maintaining even more possession and beefing up as full-grown men defenders. Scarier still is the fact that Spanish academies are stocked with equally worthy players - some of them just won the U19 Euros - and are equipped with a proven system to continue churning out world-beaters.

Tiki-Taka is here to stay, and if this opening game is anything to go by, so too is this edition of La Furia Roja.

Anyone who has played youth soccer has lined up against a kid who was bigger, stronger, not that skilled, but because of his premature pubescence was better than everyone else on the field by a country mile. By the time puberty hit for his peers he was no longer anything special due to having relied on a physical advantage for far too long. While that fate could well be the future of the Ecuadorian national team, it seems Australia’s is similar but less athletic.

Tidy players such as Cahill, Kewell, and Viduka have entertained Aussies and neutral audiences alike in the past decade with heart-wrenching displays of gutsily composed soccer. Unfortunately the Australian U20s seem to be less skilled and less creative than recent editions of the full Aussie national team. Consequently Ecuador was made to look at times unflappable and solidly better the rest of the time. If not for some shameful finishing, Ecuador would have run away with this game.

Credit is due for hanging on and snagging an equalizer off of a very pretty free kick from Thomas Oar in the 89th, however Australia showed themselves to be a less athletic version of their technically uninspiring opponents. Both teams may very well advance to the knockout phase, but Australia especially more closely resemble the mostly hollow promise that American youth teams have been shelling out for years than the silky skill of the young Argentinian teams that have gone on to deliver well into their adulthood.

There is hope as the Soccerroos do boast some skill players - Mustafa Amini is eye-catching in more ways than one - but the general trend is less than encouraging.

Meanwhile, hosts Colombia razzled, dazzled, and otherwise undressed France in their opener in Bogota. Though the game was delayed an hour due to a wet pitch, the Colombians made it more than worth the wait.

France were far from undeserving when Arsenal starlet Gilles Sunu put them ahead in the 21st minute, but Colombia displayed an extra touch of polish from the outset. When James Rodriguez converted from the penalty spot 30 minutes in, a cascade of well-designed goals had begun.

The young Cafeteros - yes, coffee-growers - thrilled the home crowd with an attacking style that combines the relentless athleticism of Ghana with the daring skill and creativity of the Brazilian samba. Of course no attack is complete without a thoroughly confident and equally uncompromising striker. Lucky for Colombia, Luis Muriel seems to be just that. His stated target before the competition was to win the Golden Boot. Muriel left the game in 87th with two goals to his name and well-deserved ovation in his ears seemingly well on his way to accomplishing his goal.

Historically speaking, it was not all that long ago when Carlos Valderrama and co. were a dynamic force to be reckoned with. Having missed out on the last two World Cups however, Colombia has since been largely forgotten. Yet if this group of youngsters continues to display the kind of talent the French are still attempting to digest, the rest of the world will soon be vividly reminded of Colombia’s capabilities.

Check back in a few days for continued U20 WC coverage.

-- Jacob Klinger


Will Parchman said...

Keep an eye trained on Argentina's Erik Lamela, Roma's shiny new toy. Kid is all class, and he's been lighting up the U20 WC thus far.

Jacob Klinger said...

Thanks for the solo clip. He's definitely quality, though I don't know about that whole "next messi" schpiel. Struggled with England's bullishness though.