North American neighbours renew rivalry in Thailand
The women's game has produced some fine footballing rivalries in recent years. And at the youth level, the tête-à-tête between the United States and Canada that began in earnest back in August of 2002 is bound to keep things interesting for years to come. Next stop for the North American rivals: Thailand 2004.
The two met up in the final of the inaugural FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship in August of 2002 in Edmonton. The host Canadians, complete with current senior team stars Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang, awakened the passions of an entire nation with a spirited campaign but came up just short when U.S. senior starlet Lindsay Tarpley sealed the deal with a golden goal early in extra-time of the final.
Take a look back at Canada 2002 .
With the second U-19 World Championship in Thailand just around the corner in November, the pair are set to rejuvenate their bubbling rivalry anew. This time though, the Canucks look to have the upper hand as they took top continental honours with a 2-1 win over the States in the final of the CONCACAF qualifiers early last month .
Room for improvement
In light of the defeat, U.S. boss Mark Krikorian, who took over the reins from Tracy Leone early in 2004, sees a need for marked improvement if his youngsters are to repeat their world-beating exploits of 2002.
"Canada played a very organised, disciplined game when we met in the CONCACAF final," the ex-WUSA coach told FIFA.com. "They're a tough team, and we weren't able to grind them down the way we needed to. We just weren't ready for a match like that."
Canada boss Ian Bridge, on the other hand, was predictably thrilled with the win. "It's always great to win against the Americans," said the boss who was at the helm two years ago at Canada 2002. "It was a great effort from everyone."
Despite coming up second-best in CONCACAF, Krikorian feels there is plenty of time to regroup.
"Now it's time to get down to teaching and learning. Hopefully I can be a good teacher and they are ready to be good students because we have a lot of work to do," the boss said. "We have plenty of time to get fully prepared and put in the kind of performances we want."
Better than before?
Bridge, who played with Canada at their only FIFA World Cup™ appearance in Mexico 86, has supreme confidence in his team's abilities after they breezed through the qualifying campaign scoring 20 goals in five matches and conceded only one -- in the final.
"I think overall this team is as strong or maybe even stronger than the one that did so well in Edmonton in 2002," he said of his side that finished the regional qualifiers with a 100% record. "Of course we don't have a Christine Sinclair and that will hurt us. But she is a once-in-a-lifetime player."
Missing Sinclair, who bagged 10 goals in six games two years ago including five against England in the quarters, will surely prove a significant loss. But the boss can take heart in the leadership and savvy of another Canada 2002 veteran among the ranks - Kara Lang.
Lang to lead the Canuck gang
Lang, who was just 14 when she broke onto the scene in 2002, will be back in Canuck red to lead the lines in Thailand. The Oakville, Ontario native has been called "one of the most exciting young players in the game today" by senior team coach Even Pellerud, and with the experience she earned as a starter for the Canadian FIFA Women's World Cup team of 2003, she will surely prove the focal point for a Canadian team brimming with confidence.
At the end of the day, the U.S. boss is expecting success in the Far East, but knows it won't come cheap. "The team from Canada 2002 have set the bar pretty high. It was a great group of players, but I think we have the talent and know how to match their achievements," the boss said. "We are going to Thailand to win, that is how we define success. Anything short of a championship and we will feel that we have not done our job."
Tough times ahead
Both sides will have their work cut out in Thailand, especially holders, the USA. Alongside Asian Champions Korea Republic and two yet to be determined European sides, the States will have to emerge from what looks a perilous group .
"We have the Asian champions in the group and we will also have to go up against the champions of Europe. It's safe to say that the group poses some significant challenges. But we will be out there to do our best and anything less than a repeat of 2002 will feel like failure for us," Kirikorian told FIFA.com after the draw in Bangkok.
By finishing champions of CONCACAF, Canada look to have bought themselves a leaner group challenge, but a tough one nonetheless. Up against the hosts Thailand, Australia and a yet to be determined European team, they will need to stay focused if they hope to emerge unscathed from the first round and get another shot at their rivals to the south.