England and Spain have been proponents of footballing art at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, and it's fitting that they are part of the competition's biggest showpiece — the final.
Their flamboyance en route to the final has left many in awe of their football, but no team embarks on this long journey to reach the ultimate clash to win mere hearts. Be it at any level, a final is all about the winners, not of hearts, but the cup.
Ask Brazil. When the South Americans take to the field at the Vivekanand Yuba Bharati Krirangan for the third-place match against Mali, they will enjoy unconditional support, but it won't be a particularly enjoyable moment for the Brazilians to play audience to the title clash that follows. They'll readily exchange crowd support for a place in the marquee game.
Even without Brazil, the passionate Kolkata crowd will be looking forward to witnessing England take on Spain in the final. After impressing in every game that the Young Lions have played in the City of Joy, the local crowd will have warmed up to the English, especially after the attractive brand of football that they put up in their 3-1 win over Brazil. Spain, who are equally artistic, will provide a tough contest.
In a clash of footballing philosophy, styles and technique, England and Spain will look to outperform each other. While neither may be able to completely eclipse the other considering the proximity of the teams on the skill and technique parameters, it will be the team that shows greater efficiency that will emerge on top.
It's an area that both teams could improve on. While England and Spain have created plenty of chances in the competition so far, they have failed to keep their attempts on target. Going forward, Spain have hit the target just 39 percent (41 out of 105) of their total attempts, while England have been slightly better with 44.5 percent (43 out of 101) of their shots ending up on their opponents' goals.
Comparing shots on target numbers, both teams have had more than 50% ccuracy on just one occasion — Spain in the semi-final against Mali when they had seven out of their 10 shots on target, and England in their quarter-final against USA when 12 out of their 20 shots were goal bound.
These numbers come as a surprise, especially considering both teams are blessed with two of the most natural goal-scorers this World Cup has seen in Rhian Brewster and Abel Ruiz, who are also the competition's leading scorers with seven and six goals to their names respectively.
In a game of fine margins, England and Spain will have to shun their extravagance for a bit more efficiency, even if it takes a bit of sheen off their artistry on the pitch.
The two teams met in the final of the European U-17 Championship in May earlier this year, where Spain emerged victorious 4-1 on penalties after a 2-2 draw. On the day, Spain made 13 attempts out of which only five were on target, compared to England's three in as many attempts. The eventual champions, who dominated most parts of the game, were minutes away from being punished for their profligacy, as they needed a stoppage-time equaliser to take the game to penalties.
However, England have got stronger since and have had a magnificent campaign so far where they have scored 18 goals and conceded just four, keeping three clean sheets in the process. Spanish coach Santi Denia, who's kept a close eye on their European rivals, certified that ahead of the game.
"I believe England have improved in every aspect of the game. It is clear that they are defensively much better while offensively their record — 18 goals from six matches — speak for themselves," Denia told a press conference on the eve of the final.
"They have improved not only with the ball but they do know how to play transition football," he said while crediting England coach Steve Cooper.
Against Brazil, England looked like a team that was extremely aware of their playing philosophy and what role each player had to perform during different circumstances of the game. Moreover, unlike their predecessors, this English team is gifted with technically strong players in the shape of Manchester City's Phil Foden, Chelsea's George McEachran and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Liverpool's Brewster.
At the back, the likes of Joel Latibeaudiere, Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo and Steven Sessesgnon are well equipped to play a possession-based game.
Spain, like their several previous generations, have players with sound techniques. Apart from captain Ruiz, Ferran Torres, Sergio Roberto, Mohamed Moukhliss and Cesar Gelabert are wonderfully talented.
"They (Spain) are befitting World Cup finalists. It's an amazing achievement for them. It's a very good team throughout from back to front players. We know where their strength lies as well as the areas what we can exploit, because of that we are going to game confident," Cooper said ahead of the game.
The Englishman was to quick to quash any suggestions of a possible change in strategy against Spain, hinting at sticking to his guns, just like his team did against Brazil.
"Whether we play in a group stage match or a final, our idea is going to be the same. We won't change something that's worked so well for us in the tournament so far. And I believe in all my players to do the job once again," Cooper asserted.
Spain, on the other hand, have their own reasons not to change their guard. Since their loss to Brazil in their opening game, which coach Denia termed as a "wake-up call", Spain have remained unchanged for five straight games, winning all of them.
So Denia has a combination that's got the taste of producing winning performances, and will feel confident even against England, who are yet to lose a game in the entire competition.
In this titanic clash, something will have to give. With the numerous football artisans on show on Saturday, delightful intricate passing moves, dazzling runs, astonishing goals and astute defending is a certainty. What's uncertain is a clear favourite in the duel, as there isn't one.
In a World Cup where results have been determined by small details according to Spanish coach Denia, the final should be no different. With there being no shortage of style on show, it will be the team that can produce greater substance on the football pitch, that will come up trumps.
In Kolkata, at the magnificent Salt Lake stadium, the stage is set. Now it's over to the young starlets to make their first mark on the world of football.
England: Curtis Anderson (GK), Steven Sessegnon, Joel Latibeaudiere (C), Marc Guehi, Jonathan Panzo, Tashan Oakley-Boothe, George McEachran, Morgan Gibbs White, Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster
Spain: Alvaro Fernandez (GK), Mateu Jaume, Hugo Guillamon, Victor Chust, Juan Miranda, Antonio Blanco, Mohamed Moukhliss, Cesar Gelabert, Sergio Gomes, Ferran Torres, Abel Ruiz (C)
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Updated Date: Oct 28, 2017 12:40:18 IST