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Previewing the FIFA U-20 World Cup knockout stage
Following a hectic group stage, the knockout rounds promise plenty. We take a look at the runners and riders as things get serious in Argentina
A crazy nine days of action have come and gone, and 24 teams have become 16 at this year’s Under-20 World Cup. And haven’t we been treated to some brilliant football?
Italy’s 3-2 win over Brazil, England’s 3-2 win over Uruguay, Colombia’s 2-1 wins over Israel and Japan, South Korea’s 2-1 victory over France, and Gambia’s incredible 2-1 win over France were just some of the highlights (so far) of this festival of football. And these results led to some massive fallout, with France, Japan and Senegal finding themselves amongst the eight teams culled from the tournament’s 24 qualifiers.
We’ve seen some fantastic individual displays too: Cesare Casadei’s two-goal performance for Italy against Brazil, Adama Bojang’s electric display for Gambia against Honduras, and Luka Romero’s demolition of a hapless New Zealand as hosts Argentina completed their group stage campaign with three wins from three.
We covered a range of the best individual performances so far at this tournament in our matchday round-ups available for paid subscribers here (you can also take up a free one-month trial subscription to read all of our coverage from the tournament):
Now, after 36 games, we are left with these knockout round qualifiers:
Group Winners: Argentina, USA, Colombia, Brazil, England, Gambia
Runners-up: Uzbekistan, Ecuador, Israel, Italy, Uruguay, South Korea
Best Third-Place finishers: New Zealand, Slovakia, Tunisia, Nigeria
Eliminated : Dominican Republic, Fiji, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Japan, Senegal
Match 37: Israel vs Uzbekistan
Led by Abbosbek Fayzullaev, Asian champions Uzbekistan were able to scrape through a favourable Group A with two important goals from Shakhzodjon Nematjonov in their final group game against Guatemala, securing them second place.
Uzbekistan place massive importance on their defensive structure and being difficult to break down, winning the Under-20 Asian Cup by scoring five times and conceding just once in six matches.
However, they will come up against a freewheeling and very well coached Israel team, who were runners-up at the Under-19 European Championships in 2019. Israel are captained by the impenetrable Ilay Madmon in midfield, and led by Dor Turgeman up front (who we profiled in our MD1 round-up).
This match is likely to be a slugfest but the victor will become a massive dark horse to win the World Cup. That is, if they can overcome a difficult side of the draw, with the winner of this game likely to meet Brazil in a quarter-final.
Match 38: USA vs New Zealand
Without looking extraordinarily impressive, the USA walked through Group B with three wins from three and zero goals conceded in 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0 wins over Ecuador, Slovakia and Fiji respectively.
Diego Luna, who we covered in our MD2 round-up, has been a real livewire for an American team that struggled to reach top gear offensively throughout the group stage, although will be encouraged that they have another level to reach as they progress through this tournament. Daniel Edelman has also been excellent as a controlling midfielder that has dictated terms and showed impressive technique and creative tendencies.
For the New Zealanders, this game will be a massive test to see whether they can lift themselves after a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Argentina in MD3. Wellington Phoenix’s Finn Surman’s defensive prowess will be crucial to their hopes, with his performances so far this tournament being underlined by the huge volume of defensive actions he makes over 90 minutes.
Match 39: England vs Italy
The blockbuster tie of this Round of 16 sees England face off against Group D runners-up Italy as their prize for topping Group E.
It is yet to be determined whether England’s Brooke Norton-Cuffy and Callum Doyle will be available for the clash, although they have already landed in Argentina, departing immediately after Coventry City’s play-off final defeat to Luton on Saturday.
Even without them England will feel confident of snagging victory, after winning all three of their group games, a 3-2 win over Uruguay chief amongst them. Darko Gyabi and Alfie Devine were notable standouts in that game, as was Mateo Joseph, who we profiled in our MD2 round-up.
Italy’s Under-20 World Cup campaign started brightly with a hugely impressive 3-2 win over Brazil, although that scoreline was ultimately unflattering as they led 3-0 after a dominant first half display.
Cesare Casadei has been Italy’s (and perhaps the tournament’s) best player so far, with a host of commandeering midfield performances and four group stage goals to his name. Tommaso Baldanzi and Simone Pafundi have also been dangerous in attack for the Italians.
Match 40: Brazil vs Tunisia
It’s difficult to project Tunisia being anything more than a small speed bump on Brazil’s path to the quarter-finals. Brazil have grown into this tournament nicely after a difficult opener against England, and eventually topped their group on goal difference thanks to a 6-0 thumping of the Dominican Republic on MD2.
Arthur, Marlon Gomes and Marcos Leonardo have been amongst Brazil’s best, while Andrey Santos still has more gears to hit before he reaches the level he showed at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships earlier in the year.
Tunisia are here thanks to a 3-0 win over Iraq on MD2, which they managed despite being outshot 26-7 by the Iraqis. But they’ve mustered little else, losing 1-0 to an England team playing at walking pace and then conceding 35 shots to Uruguay in their final group game, escaping with just a 1-0 loss.
Lock this one in for the Brazilians.
Match 41: Argentina vs Nigeria
Of the four group winners assigned a third placed team to play in the Round of 16, Argentina can probably count themselves as the unluckiest after drawing Nigeria.
The Nigerians proved to be plucky opponents for both Italy and Brazil, even beating the Italians 2-0 before eventually being nudged into third place in the group on MD3 due to goal difference, despite claiming six points.
Jude Sunday has been the pick of the Nigerian squad, with his ability to cause carnage on the counterattack from the left flank proving crucial in their win over the Italians.
But hosts Argentina will be the ultimate test, who have only improved as this tournament has progressed. Despite not even qualifying initially before replacing Indonesia as hosts, this Argentina team is stacked with quality options all over the pitch (and bench).
People are already clamouring to label Federico Redondo, son of Fernando, as the heir of Sergio Busquets, while Valentín Barco’s performances have seen strong links to a move to Juventus emerge over the last week. Elsewhere, Luka Romero provided one of the standout performances of the tournament against New Zealand, scoring this extraordinary goal.
Without even touching on the quality of Matias Soulé and Valentín Carboni, this team is a force to be reckoned with.
Match 42: Colombia vs Slovakia
This match-up features the winners of Group C, Colombia, and, bear with us, the second-worst third-best placed teams, Slovakia. They just about squeeze through into the latter stages by running up a 4-0 scoreline against Fiji in the opening game.
The South Americans should have enough to beat the eastern Europeans in this tie. The likes of Yaser Asprilla and Oscar Cortés are difference-makers in attack, Andrés Salazar and Gustavo Puerta provide impetus from deeper areas and in transition, and they have a promising centre-back in Kevin Mantilla. They’ve exhibited the ability to sandbag games through possession and cut through teams with slick counter-attacks. They have a bit of everything.
The one to watch for Slovakia? Feyenoord’s Leo Sauer. The youngest in their squad, he cuts a distinctive profile on the left wing with a graceful style. He has the ability to make an attacking impact through a sleek skillset.
Match 43: Ecuador vs South Korea
South Korea provided one of the first shocks of the tournament on MD1 with an impressive counter-attacking display that saw them beat France 2-1.
For the Koreans, Yong-hak Kim and Ji-soo Kim have been the clear standouts. The former is a stocky, tricky wide player that thrives in transition (we spoke more about him in our MD1 round-up), while the latter is a commanding, ambipedal centre-back who anchored the Korean defence and gave it enormous stability in the group stage.
On the other side are the Ecuadorians, who were the leading scorers in the group stage with 11 goals - although nine of those came in a 9-0 drubbing of Fiji on MD2.
If nothing else, this team is worth watching just to see Independiente del Valle’s Kendry Páez strut his stuff. Already on his way to Chelsea, Páez’s goal against Fiji made him the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Under-20 World Cup.
Match 44: The Gambia vs Uruguay
Last but not least, AFCON Under-20 finalists Gambia will look to continue their fairytale run at this tournament, but face a stern test after drawing Uruguay in their Round of 16 match.
In their first-ever appearance at the Under-20 World Cup, the Gambians were undefeated in Group F, with a shock 2-1 win over France bookended by a late 2-1 win over Honduras and a 0-0 draw with South Korea.
Their best players have been Granada’s Mahmudu Bajo, anchoring their midfield, and chiefly Adama Bojang, whose Osimhen-like athleticism caught our attention instantly. We covered Bojang more extensively in our MD2 round-up.
Uruguay will be no pushover, though. That a country whose population sits at less than four million can consistently churn out such incredible footballers is a constant source of amazement, and this generation looks just as talented as those that have come before it.
Franco González has been Uruguay’s prime mover so far as chief creator in their midfield, while Matías Abaldo on the wing and Alan Matturo at left-back have also been excellent.
However, after struggling to influence games so far, the knockout rounds may prove an opportunity for the highly-rated Luciano Rodríguez to take centre stage.
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