Nineteen days on from the opening whistle in the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, the best of the lot are about to face off. Having stood through the test of five gruelling games, four teams will play the semi-final believing it's their cup to lose.
The two teams that will share this sentiment particularly strongly would be Brazil and England — the only unbeaten sides in the competition. The clash would have been a fitting final, but the draw has pitted these two nations against one another in a high-voltage semi-final.
The build-up to the game was dominated by FIFA deciding to shift the game from its original venue of Guwahati to Kolkata after abnormal rainfall rendered the playing surface at the former's Indira Gandhi Stadium unfit to stage a game of football.
Even though it involved traveling back to Kolkata moments after landing in Guwahati, the change in venue has been welcomed from both camps.
Brazil have come off a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Germany in the quarter-final at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata, where England have played all three of their group stage matches as well as the Round of 16 clash against Japan. With wins in each of those games, the Young Lions are certain to have fond memories of the place.
England coach Steve Cooper was quick to downplay any talks of an advantage to either team due to their previous endeavours in Kolkata, but revealed he was pleased to return to the city to play the semi-final at a venue he describes as "magnificent".
"It's an amazing experience to play here but it does not matter how many times you have played in a venue. To be honest, I don't think of any advantage or disadvantage tomorrow for any team. But we know the journey, what the pitch looks like and we want to make it a positive experience." Cooper told reporters ahead of the game.
Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu shared his English counterpart's feelings as far as playing the all-important clash in the West Bengal capital was concerned.
"We are happy to be back here again. Kolkata received us (in) a very good way and put on a spectacular show," Amadeu said referring to the quarter-final against Germany that witnessed a record crowd attendance that was in excess of 66,000.
The semi-final stage is uncharted territory for this path-breaking England side, while the Brazilians, who've passed this mark before, haven't been a part of one since 2011. Their previous win in the semi-final of this event came way back in 2003 when they last lifted the trophy.
However, with the U-17 roster of teams undergoing a drastic change in every edition of the World Cup, past results count for little. Recent form and the calibre of the current squads have greater influence on results, and there's little to choose between the two teams on that front.
In their two most recent encounters, England and Brazil have won one game apiece, and their performance in the competition so far has left very little to desire.
England found the net 15 times in the tournament so far, while Brazil have score on 11 occasions. The Young Lions have conceded thrice, while the Brazilians have let in just two. Gabriel Brazao, keeper for the 'Samba Boys', is yet to concede to an opposition player from open play.
Both teams have named fairly settled teams throughout the tournament, barring a few changes here and there, thus showcasing the clarity in their game plan. Strong benches have kept the starting XI players of both teams on their toes, leading to all-round performances.
"We have to think more about ourselves than about the opposition. We want to play (a) possession-based game, attractive football and work hard. If you change from game to game that means you don't have a plan. But we do have a plan," asserted the English coach.
In comparison, Amadeu spoke a bit more about maintaining a balance in their play, and not being too carried away in either aspect of the game.
"We have a set of plans and it's no secret. When we have the ball we attack, when we lose the possession all players go to defend. We try to maintain this balance. We have to be committed to offensive and defensive system. Hope the boys will show good fight tomorrow," the Brazilian said.
Both Brazil and England have put up an exhibition of technique and style in the World Cup so far, They've also highlighted the physical sides to their games in certain matches, apart from showing enough mental strengths.
Little gets better than recording comeback wins over Spain and Germany in the same tournament, but Brazil will be wary of England's attacking flair that's seen then score four goals on three occasions in this World Cup. Their only blip came against the Japanese in the Round of 16 when the Asians forced them into a penalty shootout. The Young Lions kept their nerves from the spot, dispatching all five penalties to win the shootout 5-3.
"Both teams are totally balanced. No team has any advantage. Both can win, we or them. It's a battle between two strong teams with individual players who have really great skills. It will be a great match," Amadeu predicted before Cooper issued an almost similar assessment.
"Brazil are a strong all-round side. They played some great football against Germany after a goal down. They showed a lot of fight and spirit to win the game. It is likewise with us also. I don't think there is a big difference tactically, physically and technically among the teams," Copper said.
For Brazil the attacking trio of Brenner, Lincoln and Paulinho have scored three goals apiece. Rhian Brewster has taken up most of the responsibility of scoring for England, having scored on five occasions, that included a hat-trick against the United States in the quarter-final.
Towering center-back and captain Vitao marshals the defence for Brazil, while that responsibility falls on the equally capable shoulders of Joel Latibeaudiere, the English skipper who's been a formidable influence at the heart of their defence.
However, it's in the middle of the part where the battle might be won or lost as England match Brazil's striking prowess with Brewster, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi all showing their abilities at some point in the competition.
The battle between George McEachran of England and Marcos Antonio of Brazil is a mouth-watering prospect. Both players are sublime on the ball and silky in their passing. Moreover, they often dictate the pace of the game. The player among the two who's able to exert more influence on the game will end up on the winning side.
With so little separating the sides, it won't be a surprise if both teams are put through the agony of a penalty shootout to decide the winner.
However, for those who managed to survive the rat race to the tickets will be in for a special treat, perhaps the richest one the football-crazy crowd in Kolkata has ever witnessed.
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Updated Date: Oct 25, 2017 13:32:53 IST