Spain return to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi after making a successful cross-country trip to beat France, to face the dark horses Iran in the third quarter-final of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
One of the three unbeaten sides in the last-eight, the only team apart from England to have never fallen behind on the scoreline in any of their four matches so far — Iran have been the surprise package of the tournament — nobody would be reproached for wondering which nation among Spain and Iran arrives into the quarter-finals with stronger credentials.
The Road So Far
Iran, drawn into a tricky group, comfortably navigated past Guinea, Germany and Costa Rica to top Group C. Although their win over Germany put the Melli Nojavanan on the world map, it was their 2-0 victory over Guinea which underlined their self-belief and quality, as they overcame the third-place finishers in the 2017 U-17 African Cup of Nations even while playing poorly.
Spain, who began their campaign with a 2-1 loss to Brazil, finished as runners-up in Group D. One of the pre-tournament favourites, Spain are back into the fray of the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time since 2009 and have a squad capable of going the distance.
Although different to Iran in their playing style, Spain somewhat embody Iran’s approach — functioning as an entity instead of simply relying on charismatic, individual talent. Both nations won their respective Round of 16 encounters by 2-1 scoreline, and deservedly so, but the course of the matches couldn’t have been any more different.
While Iran raced to a two-goal lead against a Mexico side devoid of goalscorers, Spain came back from behind against the most prolific scorers of the group stages. While the Iranian defence had to hold steadfast against a spirited but patient Mexican forward line, Spain themselves were the benefactors of patience as they slowly chipped away at the French backline and eventually found a way through in the dying stages of the game.
A Clash of Contrasting Styles
Iran’s plaudits have rested on the strike partnership of Allahyar Sayyad and Younes Delfi — the latter’s absence against Spain due to a suspension could be crucial. While Sayyad has been proficient in operating in the opponent’s 18-yard box, more often than not finding himself in a perfect position to pounce on a loose ball or get onto the end of a teammate’s pass, his composure has been suspect on certain occasions and the 16-year-old must operate at his absolute best to make up for Delfi’s absence.
The presence of Mohammad Ghaderi and Mohamad Sharifi in midfield allows Iran that rare combination of steel and grit interspersed with creativity and flair — qualities of absolute necessity to do well in knockout games.
Moreover, as the Iranian defence has proved over the last four matches, they can shut out the finest of attacking talents should they put their will to it. And on the rare occasions they get beaten, there is Ali Gholam Zadeh’s calm, reassuring presence below the bars. On a whole, Abbas Chamanyan’s Iran is a squad which reeks of team intelligence, a rare trait at this level.
“Our first objective is to keep a clean sheet. Our second objective is to score a goal, and our third objective is to defend our advantage and win the match,” Taha Shariati made it sound so simple, as has been Iran’s approach all throughout, but football is often enveloped in complexities.
Iran have played their natural game so far — pressing as a single unit, attacking in a pack, creating chances at an electrifying rate courtesy their technically-gifted attacking midfielders and defending doggedly whenever they concede possession, but they will face their sternest test till date against Spain.
Spain will not only starve the Iranians of possession, but the European side’s tendency to play short, crisp passes as they frustrate their opposition to commit defensive errors by pulling them away from their natural positions and exploiting the spaces between the channels is in a stark contrast to Iran’s — a match between two systems-based squads akin to if Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona played against Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.
Spain’s hopes rest on two of Barcelona’s star academy players — Abel Ruiz and Sergio Gomez. Skipper Ruiz has carried the Spanish armada on his shoulders, creating and scoring goals while Gomez has mesmerized the Indian spectators with his playmaking skills, as has he confounded opposition defenders left behind in the wake of his swaggering runs.
However, Spain’s aesthetically-inclined football doesn’t come without its pitfalls. The Spaniards have been occasionally guilty of losing the ball deep into their own half in face of high pressing thereby exposing their two central defenders, a factor France exploited to create chances but could not take advantage of to influence the result.
Unlike the U-17 CONMEBOL champions Brazil or England, whom they defeated in the U-17 European Championships, it is widely believed that the current crop of La Rojitas is far from being a finished product. Spain have shown signs of their assertive presence every time they have attacked, irrespective of their opponent, yet there is a porousness in the defence which is prone to errors in face of sustained pressure.
The battle between the two continental powerhouses promises an intriguing tactical contest between two evenly matched squads, but in the end it will be a test of temperaments which will make the difference in the fortunes of either nation in their quest for glory.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 11:31:08 IST