Thursday, August 11, 2011

What? You want some too?

Remember back when Greg called that keen four for four during the 2008 Olympics? Well, the NSC intern just doubled the feat in the Under-20 World Cup round of 16. That's just how we roll, yo...

The word of the round: swagger. Whether it was coming, going, or never showing up, swagger more than any other intrinsic quality turned the tides of this Under-20 World Cup's Round of 16.

As the tournament progresses, it seems as though the favorites are playing not just to defeat their opposition, but to do their fellow contenders one better. In Tuesday night's scintillating late games, the players seemed almost conscious of the other match as Pedro Franco's goal for hosts Colombia was followed mere moments later by a strike from Cameroon's Franck Ohandza in vuvuzela-less Pereira. Before the crowd finished celebrating back in Bogota - they never stopped - Mexico had equalized.

If Mexico had allowed anybody enough time to process a thought before scoring, one would have found the plot far too familiar: Mexico dominates possession and vast portions of the game but cannot break down a more physically gifted team, only to be foiled late on by an opportunistic goal, grow frustrated, and lose. Until recently that was the American game plan, and it worked. Where Mexican teams of bygone days would have panicked, however, this generation of Mexican youngsters kept their collective cool. Through their unflappable self-belief, the Mexicans were able to stick to their game and get the goal they thoroughly deserved.

Mexico's edge in possession started to show as Cameroon looked listless in extra time. Once PKs came around, the swagger gap was evident once more as this shootout replaced USA Women vs. Japan as the worst my young eyes have had the displeasure of seeing.

Where Mexico were confident enough to remain true to their possession-oriented style, fan favorites Egypt were not nearly as prudent against Argentina . By resorting to the long ball far too early and often - about 15 minutes from full time - what seemed to be Colombia's adopted team lost their edge over a vulnerable looking team that did little more than counterattack in the run of play. In fact, Egypt looked completely the better side in the second half, but by launching long balls into a crowded box they played right into the hands of the Albiceleste . Consequently, Argentina had several chances to put the game to bed in the last ten minutes. While Egpyt may feel they were hard done by penalty decisions, they came off their game when it counted most. And for that they can only blame themselves.

Back in Bogota, extras seemed inevitable as regulation was running out on what was the game of the tournament thus far. In all fairness to Costa Rica, it would have been deserved as they were worthy opponents that were ruthless with the chances they were given. Yet Colombia were buoyed by the crowd at El Campin and oozing as much self-belief as ever when this cheeky chip at 3:59 sealed their fate:

In Wednesday's decidedly less violent set of matches - there were 23 yellow cards issued Tuesday - Ehhhngland were disappointed in their 1-0 at the hands of a Nigeria team that was just plain better in all aspects of the game. For all of England's defensive exploits, they were kidding themselves if they thought they could carry on with their recent dearth of goals. It only took one, but it was never going to come from England's flat lack of an attack.

In humid Manizales, Spain had 67% of possession against a game South Korea squad that should have been seen off much sooner. The South Koreans hung in there, and for that credit is due. That said, the Spanish outpossessing their opponents is as shocking as the sun rising in the east, just as their nervelessness under pressure is hardly a surprise. Ultimately, it was Oriol Romeu who put the Spanish ahead for good before Kyung Jung Kim missed from the spot. Let's face it though, these Spanish kids are bred to win games like this. Their relentless confidence seems to be genetic at this point in history and with it, comes trophies.

At the end of the night though, Brazil's young stars shined brightest. Sadly their brilliance will overshadow a Saudi Arabia squad that played honest and entertaining technical soccer - but Brazil looked most likely to break the tie throughout. Brazil's free-flowing samba has always embodied the concept of swagger and without fail, once Henrique broke the deadlock at the start of the second half, all the attacking gusto one could ask for was released. Another and another were added as the Brazilian starlets went forward with gobs of confidence. When it was all said and done, Brazil's last 45 was the best half this tourney has seen so far.

Their titanic clash against Spain will see scores of the world's most coveted young talent take the field. Yet talent goes for naught without the confidence to back it up as all of our quarterfinalists have come across teams of comparable ability. More than basic confidence, the dare-devil element that makes the good players great and the rest merely decent is their swagger. The raw "try and stop me" of a Luis Muriel that pervades through the entire Colombian team, the steadily demoralizing tiki-taka of Spain, and the un-ignorable forward flow of Brazil has set the stage for what promises to be some equally nervy quarterfinal clashes.

If you can only watch one it has to be Brazil-Spain, but if this last round is any indication, you should watch them all.

My semifinalists: Brazil, Colombia, Nigeria, and Argentina.

- Jacob Klinger

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