FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Spain's midfield in for stern Mali test with spot in final on the line
Spain might have an extra edge going into the clash at the Dr DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, but Mali's direct football can shake up the technically sound Spanish midfield
For a team that has won everything out there in international football, there is one such silverware that has eluded them. Despite being a powerhouse in world football, Spain has never won the U-17 World Cup title. Their senior side has created history and revolutionised the game. But the junior side is yet to put their hands on the U-17 trophy. Only France and Brazil are two such sides who have won an Olympic gold, a continental and world title at every age group. On Wednesday, Spain face off against Mali in the semi-finals with an aim to clinch the final piece of the jigsaw in their illustrious trophy cabinet.
Spain coach Santiago Denia doesn't think his side is under pressure to bring home the winners' medal."There is no pressure on us, no pressure on coaching staff, not even on the players and of course no pressure on the federation. We want to win it (World Cup) for the first time but we know the challenges ahead. It is not about the pressure but about the challenge of winning the World Cup."
These comments have made one thing clear. The coach wants his players to play their natural game. Just like they did against Niger, blasting four past the debutants to announce themselves after a narrow 2-1 loss to Brazil in the lung opener.
The La Roja are a side that relies heavily on their traditional technical style of football. The kind of game that ticks all the boxes and attracts even the opposition fans. The 'tiki-taka' football is just one such element of Spanish football. For Spain, who won the U-17 European Championships beating England on penalties, the motive is to build a strong base for years to come. That has always been the case and hence there are familiar faces in the senior squad who shone at the U-17 or U-20 levels. Xavi Hernandez and Iker Casillas won the 1999 U-20 World Cup with Spain. Juan Mata, Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas, Isco and David de Gea are some of the players who have won the European Championships at the junior levels.
Meanwhile, for Mali, things have been on an upward trajectory since making it to the final of the previous edition in Croatia. They went on to win the continental title for the second successive time earlier this year. Moreover, their form has been steady throughout. A 3-2 loss to Paraguay was the only chink in their campaign so far. The Jonas Komla-led side looks to have a plan in mind after missing out on the elusive title in 2015 by a whisker. For them, the U-17 platform is the key to unlock their entry to the doors of the senior level at the world level.
Mali have shown that they are a side that likes to play direct football and strike a balance between their attack and defence. "After the first match (against Paraguay), I told the boys that they need to play each game as if it were a final," says Komla. His team comes across as a genuine threat to even the slickest of teams in the competition. Mali are also joint top-scorers in the tournament, netting 15 goals. "Nothing has changed in terms of tactics, the philosophy has been the same, to play and win." Not only that, they are the competition's best attacking bunch with a total of 128 attempts on goal. In the absence of 2015 winners Nigeria, Mali will be hoping to make the most of their opportunities.
Denia, the experienced Spanish coach, doesn't have to worry about his attacking unit. "I don't think we have a disadvantage going into the match. I don't believe Mali is going to play transition game. They love to attack from their wings," he said. Players like Nacho Diaz, Ferran Torres and Abel Ruiz have troubled defences more than any other side with their natural style of play. On the other hand, Mali possess variety. Their 5-1 and 2-1 win over Iraq and Ghana respectively, proved how the African side can handle both, technical and physical challenges on the pitch. Midfielder Salam Jiddou along with Hajdi Drame and Mamadou Traore can single-handedly change the face of the match should they link up well in the final third.
Spain might have an extra edge going into the clash at the Dr DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, but Mali's direct football can shake up the technically sound Spanish midfield. For Spain, it is about solving the final round of the puzzle in India, while there is the hunger to acclaim the silverware for the Malians after watching neighbours Nigeria celebrate.
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