There was palpable excitement regarding the intriguing tactical contests Group F promised even prior to the FIFA U-17 World Cup kick-off with two continental champions as well as two runners-up getting drawn into the 'Group of Death'. While most other groups had one or two teams which could be deemed favourites to progress to the knock-outs, Group F had four equally capable nations vying for three spots.
As it is often said that 'the morning shows the day', the opening fixtures at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan were an indication of what would transpire over the six group stage matches – while England announced themselves with a 4-0 win over Chile, it was the 1-1 draw between Iraq and Mexico which took many by surprise.
England, with a superbly talented squad and excellent depth in their ranks, were the favourites to top the group right from the outset. Steve Cooper's boys, all plying their trade at some of the top academies in Europe, repeatedly demonstrated the gulf in class with the remaining teams as they piled on the goals.
Led from the front by the prodigal Jadon Sancho in the attack and the duo of George McEachran and Phil Foden in the midfield, England were pretty much unplayable during the 270-odd minutes this past week, except for a brief period in the second half against Mexico, when the El Tri juniors threatened to mount a comeback from the brink of a loss.
While goals win matches, it is a solid defensive unit which sets apart the best teams in a tournament of this stature, and the English back four, impeccable so far, will face sterner tests in the knock-outs. England finished the group stage netting 11 goals and having conceded only twice - second in both aspects among all the participating nations - a remarkable feat considering the quality of their opponents.
Iraq, dubbed as the dark horses, played every game with purpose and executed their managers Qahtan Jathir's gameplans to perfection as they secured a knock-out berth after their first two matches. In Mohammed Dawood, Iraq not only has an elite young forward, but a match-winner in the truest sense. Not only does he act as the attacking fulcrum for the Asian side, his mere presence in the line-up lifts up the entire team. The 17-year-old, who was the top scorer in the U-16 AFC Championships last year, was Iraq's best player in both their victories and will be a huge miss against Mali in the round of 16.
While Iraq's tactical approaches switched from direct counter-attacking football against Mexico to an all-out possession-based one against Chile, the Asian champions still have a long way to go, as demonstrated in their 0-4 loss to England in the final game.
Not always does one need a win to qualify for the round of 16 – as Mexico huffed and puffed to find goals against three different opponents and at two different venues, they rode a stroke of luck to secure a knock-out berth with a negative goal difference and just two points.
Mexico came into the competition with the most glorious history among all the four Group F teams - as two-time champions and competing in their third FIFA World Cup at this youth level, but past records are seldom a guarantee of success. The CONCACAF champions, revered for their brand of simple, direct football had trouble acclimatising themselves with the Indian conditions.
Their struggles to break down the Iraqi defence in the first game could be attributed to the unfamiliar conditions, their captivating second-half performance in their loss to England showed only glimpses of what the El Tri juniors could pull off at full throttle, but it was their goalless affair in Guwahati which alluded to trouble in the coming days.
Mexico have an abundance of creative talent at their disposal, as attested by the showings of Diego Lainez, Jairo Torres and Roberto de La Rosa but they lack a genuine goalscorer - a player in the mould of Iraq's Mohammed Dawood or Japan's Keito Nakamura who can make the difference between registering multiple shots on target and finding that all-important winning goal.
Hernan Caputto's Chile let in seven goals and scored none – an appalling statistic, considering the fact that even debutants India and New Caledonia managed to find the net. While England had a nearly-perfect three games, everything which could go wrong for Chile did. From losing their fantastic custodian Julio Borquez to suspension in the winnable Iraq game to schoolboy errors all across the pitch, Chile failed to live up to the billing.
Their dogged defending might have held Mexico to a goalless draw in the final game, but their inability to take easy chances even with the prospect of causing a huge upset and qualifying looming in front of them was simply unacceptable at this level.
The road ahead
England will face Japan while Iraq and Mexico face far stronger sides in Mali and Iran respectively. How the Young Lions handle pressure against a gifted Japan side will be crucial, for Cooper is likely to be without his star player Sancho, who would have to go back to Borussia Dortmund duties.
Iraq, on the other hand, will have to reinvent themselves in front of the goal in Dawood's absence as Mali, with their win against New Zealand, have proven their calibre. Mexico will start as the underdogs against a spirited Iran side, whose unrelenting playing style has already elevated the Asian nation's stature in world football.
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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 00:09:44 IST