It was a game of two halves, maybe two minutes more of the first. A disjointed Spain who really looked like the away side in the first half donning their all-white kit made serious amends in the second and entered the quarter-finals by beating France, who were playing their fourth consecutive match of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Guwahati.
Nothing was served on a silver platter and Spain had to toil hard before they eventually got the gift of a penalty late into regulation time which FC Barcelona wonderkid Abel Ruiz converted from 12 yards. The 2-1 scoreline was enough to seal progression into the next round.
France rung in seven changes after resting key members Claudio Gomes, Yacine Adli and the talk of the town, Amine Gouiri, against Honduras in their last group game. In contrast, Santiago Denia stuck with the same eleven for the third game on the trot — a testament to the fitness levels maintained by the team despite their arduous travel of four hours from Kochi hardly 48 hours earlier.
France, the home side having set up camp in the city since 3rd October, were beginning to show their true colours as they were painting the grass blue. But this time they were up against an opposition of much superior quality from what they faced in the group they topped and the margin was showing as Spain matched France with every move they made. It looked like a basketball game as inside the opening quarter of an hour the ball hardly remained stationed in one half and there were constant forays from each team into the opposition box.
Familiarity with conditions played a part for Les Bleuets as Spain looked a bit drained out. Their usual displays of slick one-two passing seemed to be coming at a premium as the faces looked like they longed for a cooling break. Ruiz’s weak first time shot right into the ‘keeper’s hands after some quick passes down the flank just defined Spain’s first thirty minutes—lot of promise but no cutting-edge precision in the final third.
The game looked to be slipping away from Spain after Lenny Pintor scored, showcasing some neat footwork. Soon after, the usual suspects, Adli and Gouiri, were pushing hard for a double. But the extreme perspiration levels took a toll on the teenagers. Infused with a sudden gush of energy, Spain scored the equaliser against the run of play, catching France defenders napping as positional awareness went astray with the half-time whistle nearing.
Interestingly, Spain did not have a single soul out on the pitch at half-time—not even the substitutes who generally kick about a few during the break—with coach Santiago Denia choosing to let his thoughts be known to every single member of the contingent. Even though statistically the possession was equal, Spain had far few shots than France—much unlike any Spain team, across any age-group.
The half-time talk did work and the real Spain did stand up come the second period. Constriction was the key and La Roja conserved much energy by not throwing themselves on the ball and waited for France to make mistakes and once on it, there was no question of letting go of the ball.
Gouiri, Adli and Maxence Caqueret appeared less of a threat when marked zonally and whenever one of these three had the ball, holding midfielder Antonio Blanco made it a point to track back and win it for himself—showing shades of what his opposite number six, Claudio Gomes, did a week ago against Japan.
Strangled by these tactics, Adli and Gomes picked up unnecessary bookings as the French boys looked frustrated. Spain’s eight shots out of a total of eleven in the game came in the second half as compared to France’s two. Spain could have made free-kicks around the box count only for Barcelona’s Sergio Gomez to remain unlucky throughout.
France kept things solid at the back and held on. Just when things seemed to be going into penalties, wingers Pintor and Alexis Flips asked to be replaced. “For the first time in this tournament all three players asked to be subbed off, what else could I do then?” Lionel Rouxel later asked letting on that the changes were enforced rather than tactical, given the shootout was approaching.
Soon after, substitute Jose Lara beat Oumar Solet with his pace before the Frenchman brought the formr down in the box. Ruiz made no mistake and France were knocked out by Spain again, twice in a space of five months after their UEFA U-17 Euro quarter-final faceoff.
That win too had come in somewhat similar fashion after France had taken the lead, but Spain clinching the match with Ruiz scoring from the spot again.
In retrospect, Rouxel will blame himself for shutting up shop in the final few minutes in hope of going through in the penalties rather than going for the kill. While Spain travel back to Kochi to face Iran in the quarters, France will have to head back to their real home waving goodbye to Guwahati, which hosted them for over a fortnight.