With only eight teams remaining in the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Mali set the ball rolling in the quarter-finals against familiar foes Ghana at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Saturday.
In what will be a repeat of the 2017 U-17 African Cup of Nations final, when Mali beat Ghana 1-0 earlier this year in May. A West African spar will determine which team from the continent that has provided two former champions will remain in the hunt with a spot in the semi-finals next week.
Last edition’s runners-up Mali, tasted a narrow 3-2 defeat in their opening game against Paraguay, but have since put up dominant displays, scoring 12 goals in the tournament so far in their four matches. Les Aiglonnets have been knocked out twice at this stage in 1997 and 2001 and will be looking to take inspiration from their immediate senior batch, which went all the way but failed at the final hurdle last time.
Mali, who generally lineup in a 4-1-4-1 formation, will have Fode Konate, Abdoulaye Diaby, Boubacar Haidara and Ibrahim Kane supported by goalkeeper Youssouf Koita at the back, but questions will be asked of their precarious defence given they have conceded at least a goal in each game bar one. Mamadou Samake will sit ahead of the defenders with Mohamed Camara and Salam Jiddou flanked by Hadji Drame and Djemoussa Traore in midfield, and Lassana N’Diaye as the sole striker.
Relying on pace and physicality, Mali have scored six goals after the hour mark, much like the vulture bird featured on their coat of arms, who prey on the weak after they tire out. In this case, with the opponents’ battery draining, Mali’s style of play lets them conserve vital energy throughout and turn on the attack when the opposition is at their weakest. N’Diaye is the man to watch out as the striker already has five goals to his name, equal with Amine Gouiri of France on the top scorers list, and another one could see him lead the charts.
With six people on caution, head coach Jonas Kokou Komla will need to put a leash on his team’s erraticness as a potential semi-final spot is on the line. “We are not taking Ghana lightly. They have reached this level not accidentally but with their effort. It's going to be a good match. We are very much used to the rain. In fact, we played two matches (in Navi Mumbai) where it was raining. We know how to adapt. The rain should not spoil the match,” he said as it rained in Guwahati on the eve of the game.
Ghana, on the other hand, arrive with big expectations as the hype back home is colossal. Backed by their band of travelling fans, the Black Starlets would have vengeance on their mind, but would also be wary as the stakes are much higher at this stage of the tournament.
Head coach Samuel Kwesi Paa Fabin was positive that there would be no repeat of that fateful night on 28 May and his team have what it takes to go all the way. “If you get beat by somebody in some other competition it doesn't mean we will lose again when we meet. We have prepared well and we are capable of lifting the title." he stated.
Similar in style to their counterparts on Saturday evening, Ghana face yet another opponent from Africa after beating Niger 2-0 in the Round of 16. Having topped the group which had hosts India in it, Ghana have only been defeated once in this tournament and by a narrow 1-0 margin at the hands of the USA. The 1991 and 1995 champions have returned to this tournament for the first time since 2007, and will harbour hopes of bringing back their glory days from two decades ago.
Goalkeeper Danlad Ibrahim has kept three clean sheets in a 4-2-3-1 system that sees skipper and star forward Eric Ayiah supported by an ultra-attacking trio of Edmund Arko-Mensah, Ibrahim Sulley and Ibrahim Sadiq, who comes back after serving his one match suspension. However, Fabin is sweating over the fitness of centre-back Bismark Owusu and if declared unfit, Abdul Razak Yusif will take his place in defence.
While five players including Richard Danso, who has come off from the bench to score twice, are in danger of being suspended from the next game, poor returns in front of goal will be a concern for Ghana. Ayiah even missed a penalty against Niger and they have been susceptible to squander easy chances in the first half of the game.
What tilts the favour against Ghana is that the last two meetings against Mali have been won by the sub-Saharan nation, the latest one coming a month ago in a 2-1 loss in a friendly in Abu Dhabi during preparations for the World Cup.
The northeast of India will witness an all-African battle royale that will ensure the last team standing from the continent in the semi-finals. For Ghana, a third loss in a span of five months will be met with bitter taste apart from ouster from the World Cup as Mali will look to repeat their heroics yet again.
Updated Date: Oct 21, 2017 11:54:05 IST