FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Spain's short passing game downs Mali; sets up final with continental rivals England
Spain's movement in intricate patterns with sharp one-touch or maybe two-touch passes caused a headache for Mali in the semi-final.
When Louis van Gaal replaced Sir Bobby Robson as the manager of Barcelona in 1997, he introduced a certain fluid style of play and ideas about footballing evolution. In his first season in Spain, he won three titles – the league, Copa del Rey and the European Super Cup. Barcelona's style of play was a blend of highly technical and good understanding of the game. The kind of football other teams in the league were envious of. No long balls, no glory diagonal balls, but just simple, quick passing. Keeping the ball on the deck, in other words.
Over the years, Spain have played with the same philosophy which worked wonders for the team. They played with high-intensity passing, exploited gaps and never relied on the direct approach. Even at the club level, apart from Barcelona, the likes of Sevilla, Real Zaragoza, and Athletic Bilbao have embodied the same kind of football since the last decade or so. The national team, however, has been the one to get the most out of the 'tiki-taka' concept which helped them lift the 2008 UEFA Euro, 2012 World Cup and the 2012 UEFA Euro titles.
The three-time UEFA U-17 European Championships winners too have managed to bear fruit from similar approach. At the U-17 World Cup in India, Spain have continued the same pattern week in and out to become one of the clinical sides in the competition. The La Roja registered a comprehensive 3-1 win over Mali thanks to Abel Ruiz's heroics and not to forget, the plethora of chances created from the middle by sticking to their short passing and quick movements strategy.
In the battle of the continental champions, the one who defended well would come out victorious. Mali were under pressure since the first minute of the match when Abel Ruiz simply shrugged of the lanky Ibrahim Kane to cross it beautifully for Sergio Gomez, whose powerful volley was denied by goalkeeper Youssouf Koita. Ruiz was just getting warmed up. There were a few long balls as well but not many as Mali captain Mamadou Samake was fielded in the center of the park to block short passing between Spanish midfielders.
The tiki-taka troubled the Malian defence at times but it was Cesar Gelabert's sprint from the right that forced Abdoulaye Diaby to commit a foul inside the box. When Ruiz is taking a penalty, there was always going to be one outcome. He stepped up from the spot and drilled his fifth goal of the tournament to hand Spain a well-deserved lead in the 19th minute. The Malian defence was all over the place, a couple of misplaced passes had coach Jonas Komla scratching his head at the half-hour mark. Mali's reputation of being a speedy and physical team went for a toss.
Despite sharing 50-50 possession split, Mali were unable to break the Spanish defensive unit. There was a Gilabert masterclass once again just before the half-time. The 17-year-old winger saw an opening and quickly slid it between Kane and Diaby, who failed to communicate at the back, allowing Ruiz to continue his run and place a low shot just inside the far post. It was a Toni Kross-esque finish to double La Roja's lead in the 43rd minute. The fluidity in the middle and accuracy was in full swing. There was no way Mali would get the ball off the Spanish midfield. Moving the ball in intricate patterns with sharp one-touch or maybe two-touch passes caused a headache for Mali. "We like to keep the ball and move with it," Spanish coach Santiago Denia would say.
The second-half started with Mali as the strongest side, creating chances but nothing to show for after registering just a single shot on the target in the first 45 minutes. There was a passage of play where Spain would launch a couple of long balls out of nowhere for a counter-attack. It was something that the spectators have never seen from Denia's young La Roja. But, the purposeful plan kept Spain in control of the ball, while Mali chased down and were left with little energy to make quick runs.
It was in the 62nd minute when Cheick Doucoure's stunning strike could have changed the outcome of the match had the referee allowed the goal. The replay showed that the ball did hit the underside of the crossbar and landed just inside the goal-line. Mali were clearly robbed of what could've arguably been the goal of the tournament.
The Malian dugout was furious when the replay was shown on the big screen, some of the staff members ganged up against the referee, who in return brandished a yellow card to one of them. The senior tournaments have the luxury of goal-line technology but not the ones like FIFA U-17 World Cup. Komla did not comment but Denia said: "I understand if the coaches were upset, but I don't know if it would have changed the game. We have to respect the referee's decision. But we might consider not to show the replay on the big screen inside the stadium in order to not to influence the referee, coaches or fans.
The outcome of the game would have changed since Mali were starting to run past the Spanish defence at times only to fluff the finish. A 2-1 scoreline around the 65th minute surely would have made the contest interesting. In the 71st-minute Sergio Gomez breezed past two Mali players and squared it for an unmarked Ferran Torres, who then scored Spain's third and that was game over for the West African side. Mali still pressed and were in search of a consolation goal, which they scored via a close-range finish from Lassana N'Diaye. Spain switched off for a few minutes just after their third goal, however, they again sprinted through the middle to create an opening for the forwards. Denia's bunch frustrated the Malians around the 80 to 90th minute stretch with silky short passes between the midfielders and wingers.
It was a job well done for Spain despite Mali creating a total of 29 attempts throughout the match. Ruiz was very much the star man, terrorising the defenders whenever the ball was on his feet. Credit to the Spanish defence who restricted Mali to just four shots on target. The team were excellent in almost every aspect of the match, especially merciless up front. The win now sets up a repeat of the European U-17 final between Spain and England. The La Roja nicked a win via penalties a few months ago but the U-17 final will be a different ball game altogether. "We know our opponent. We have played England before in the European final, they are a very strong unit but we will have to play with a lot of focus," Ruiz concluded.
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