Host Colombia and Spain impressing at the U-20 World Cup
Spain is once again playing in its distinctive style and are among the favorites
Colombia's team shows the benefits of having trained together for a year
Argentina has dazzling talents in Juan Iturbe and Erik Lamela but has yet to click
MANIZALES, Colombia -- Thoughts on the just concluded group stage in the U-20 World Cup:
There is pride in Colombia about the very fact that its hosting a major FIFA tournament, a sense of the country continuing its process of normalization after the years of violence, and that has only been stoked by the performances of its team. Many other teams here have a sense of being cobbled together from the crumbs clubs allowed their national federations, but Colombia has trained together for over a year and it shows. Going forward it is fluid and dynamic. James Rodriguez operates almost as an old-fashioned No. 10 at the front of the midfield. Luis Muriel -- another snapped up early by Udinese -- is a prototype modern forward, comfortable on the ball, a fine finisher and intelligent in his movement. Michael Ortega cuts in from the left with similar wit, and on the right there is the more robust present of Jose Valencia, the son of the former international Alfonso Valencia. Colombia was one of only three teams to win every group match and it's hard to imagine Costa Rica, enterprising as it is, posing too much opposition in the last 16.
It's no great surprise to see Spain playing like, well, Spain. The 4-3-3 shape is familiar, the mesmerizing close-passing is familiar, the results are familiar. There was a brief spell against Costa Rica when a defensive frailty was exposed, but given it won that game 4-1, it's not something that will have bothered the coach, Julen Lopetegui, unduly. The new Chelsea signing Oriol Romeu has looked calm and composed at the back of midfield, like a more physically imposing Sergio Busquets, and Hugo Mallo has caught the eye at right back. This side, though, is all about the forwards: Alvaro Vazquez, who scored a hat trick against Australia in his first start in the tournament, fulfills the David Villa role, swooping in from the left; Daniel Pacheco has twinkled on the left; and Sergi Roberto is an unexpectedly combative center forward. The real star, though, is Sergio Canales, pulling the strings from the front of the midfield. Three wins saw Spain top the group, and it will play South Korea in the last 16 before a potential quarterfinal with Brazil.
The top scorer so far has been neither Colombia nor Spain, though, but Nigeria. In part that is down to a draw that placed them with the cannon-fodder of Guatemala -- cannon-fodder, at least, until it scraped an improbable win over Croatia -- but that should not detract from the quality and pace of some of Nigeria's attacking play. It has benefited from a level of consistency of selection -- the front two of Ahmed Musa and Edafe Egbedi operating like a proper partnership, something increasingly rare in the fragmented world of international football. "We've played alongside each other for quite a while," Musa said. "Then during the qualifiers, Egbedi was able to learn even more about how I play and the understanding between us has just got better." Olarenwajo Kayode has also impressed, contributing three goals from a deeper-lying role. The only slight doubt is the defensive frailty exposed in the 5-2 win over Croatia. Nigeria faces England in the last 16, which will be a serious test of its attacking prowess.
England reached the last 16 after three successive goalless draws, prompting much derision, but given the context, Brian Eastick's side has actually performed above itself. This is a squad, after all, that is effectively still in preseason, and that was stripped of 36 players by the refusal of clubs to release them. It has been cobbled together over 10 days training in Colorado, and, in the altitude of Medellin and the humidity of Cartagena, it has played tactically sensible soccer. England has been criticized in the past -- quite rightly -- for prioritizing determination of solidity over style and flair, but in this instance the approach is fully justified. When the defensive line has been breached, Jack Butland, at 18, has proved himself a goalkeeper of great composure and quality. Nigeria's rampant forward line will provide the sternest test so far, but whatever happens, Eastick's side can be proud of its application. Unadventurous it may have been, but the fault for that lies with the club-dominated structure of English football.
Walter Perazzo, Argentina's coach, came into the tournament in a strange position. He had been appointed by Sergio Batista, who was removed from his position as senior national team coach four days before Argentina's opening game, against Mexico. Whatever happens here, he is almost certain to go the same way. Perhaps because of that cloud, Argentina has been lackluster. Juan Iturbe, darting in from the left and the languid talents of Erik Lamela have been fleetingly impressive, and only England has a similar record of three clean sheets in a row, but Argentina expects more from its youth teams, who have who this tournament six times before. The fear has been for some time that the golden production line that has churned out dazzling talent for two decades would stop; this side may be the first evidence of that. Or it may just be that Perazzo, like Batista, was the wrong appointment. Argentina faces Egypt in the last 16.
Egypt has arguably been the surprise side of the tournament so far, fast and direct, and more than worth its draw against Brazil in the opening game. It will be far from a pushover for Argentina in the last 16. Mohamed Salah has impressed with his dead-ball delivery and astute passing, Mohamed Ibrahim hit a hat trick in the 4-0 rout of Austria and Ahmed Hassan, although he has a long way to go to achieve what his namesake has, has looked a player of genuine quality and intelligence. Egypt's greatest strength, though, could prove to be its defense, and its rapid transition from defense to attack.
Brazil will not have it easy either against an impressive Saudi Arabia. Normal service was resumed after the draw against Egypt, with the Danilo, a right-footed player who has played as both an attacking midfielder and a left back for Santos, the stand out so far. He got Brazil's opening goal of the tournament against Egypt -- a header form a corner -- in a game he started at left-back, remained in defense for the 3-0 win over Austria then moved into midfield for the 4-0 demolition of Panama. There is a sense of Brazil slowly gathering speed; a potential quarterfinal against Spain with the winners on course to meet Colombia in the semi could be a delight.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.