By the end of the match, Mali’s superiority was legion. Total shots: 28 to 3. Corners: Nine to one. Goals? Three to Mali, one for New Zealand.
It was a performance which left little doubt over the successive African champion’s true credentials. The opening game defeat to Paraguay was the surprise. Since then, Mali have turned a corner.
Coach Jonas Komla has an interesting tactical set up for his side. Although the team is fielded in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, the space between the lone forward and the defensive line is about 30 metres. Mali plays an excessively high line, rushing the opposition into decisions by compressing space. New Zealand could not keep up with the 2015 World Cup runner-up as the latter kept pushing up with intensity.
Yet, the Kiwis did not come away embarrassed on a day so hot that there were water breaks in each half after 30 minutes. When coach Danny Hay explained the result later, he argued that it was important to acknowledge the absence of competition for his side in the Oceania region. “The quality of opposition is just not there. We played two warm up games against quality sides before coming here but we need more consistent opposition. It’s an expensive challenge.”
Hay added that the group draw did not do his side any favours. Mali aside, the Kiwis played Paraguay who were beaten only once in the South American qualifiers while Turkey went all the way to the semis in the under-17 Euros. It was an improbable opportunity.
For Thursday’s challenge, Hay made three changes with his skipper Max Mata being the most notable inclusion after his return from suspension. Mata, in fact, could have scored his second goal of the tournament in the third minute when he broke away from Mali’s high defensive line. But the danger was averted and it was the last good chance the Kiwis had all half. Mali began to impose itself over the proceedings.
Roving forward Salam Jiddou dropped into pockets of space, leaving New Zealand’s back four flummoxed. For the Kiwis, Leon van den Hoven was essentially placed in a holding midfielder’s role but he did not have much success in screening the defence. It did not help that Mali skipper Mohamed Camara made frequent intrusions in the opposition half. And then there was Djemoussa Traore.
Sporting the number three jersey on the left, Traore terrorised the Kiwis. When he ran with the ball, it seemed like he ran for the joy of it. On one occasion, Traore got excited and overran past everyone. There was nobody to whom he could pass.
But in the 18th minute, Traore intercepted Elijah Just’s short pass in the centre. Another coruscating run followed before he realised there were no passing options ahead of him. So, Traore laid it back to Jiddou who went for an instinctual drive from a little over 20 yards. Boom! “We could not have done much. That goal was a bomb” said Hay afterwards.
One could see why Mali had scored five times over the past two games. The purpose and clarity driving the team’s offense was conspicuous. Mali could have doubled its advantage before the interval had Lassana N’Diaye’s shot not come off the foot of the post.
At half time, the Kiwis sought to refresh things as forward Matthew Palmer made way for Charles Spragg who had been the first choice until this match. However Traore was in no mood to let up and five minutes into the second period, Mali doubled its advantage. Camara picked out the winger on the left side of the box. The wide man cut in, feigned two shots before placing the ball in the corner. It was the kind of finish you expect from a confident forward.
Despite being two goals ahead, Mali kept an iron grip over the match. Fode Konate struck the crossbar as New Zealand ebbed away. But with less than 20 minutes to go, the Kiwis suddenly woke up to life. A neat combination by Matthew Conroy and Just saw the latter put an awkward cross into the box which was headed home from close range by Spragg. Before and after the goal, New Zealand barely threatened. The goal was a non-sequitur.
Mali remained unfazed. Ten minutes later, stamp was put on the victory as Konate produced a sudden burst of pace to power forward and put in an incisive ball for N’Diaye to finish. With this win, Mali sealed its place in the Round of 16 as the second team in Group B.
As for New Zealand, this was its sixth successive appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The Kiwis have thrice made it out of their group, including their performance two years ago in Chile when the feat was accomplished under the current head coach Danny Hay.
While a tough group made it difficult for the Oceania champion to assert itself this time around, one wonders what might have been had New Zealand’s late effort against Turkey gone in. Instead, it could only strike the post. However, as one saw on Thursday, there is much that needs to be done before the All Blacks can hope to compete with heavyweights on an equal footing. Until then, displays like the one against Mali will be common.
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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2017 15:55:13 IST