The FIFA U-17 World Championship could have its first two quarter-finalists after Monday's games at the National Stadium in Lima. Mexico and Turkey can book their places in the last eight with wins over Australia and Uruguay respectively. However, any slip-ups by the Group B leaders will throw the qualification door wide open and make for a thrilling climax in the final group games on 22 September.
The capital's National Stadium will again be the setting when the four Group B sides renew hostilities this evening. In the early game (15:30) Mexico will hoping to build on an opening-day win over Uruguay when they square off with Australia, while the South Americans will have to thwart an in-form Turkey side in the late game (18:15) in order to kick-start their campaign.
Mexico look for ticket to quarters
El Tri arrived in Peru with a reputation for fierce competitiveness, and their opening game can only have enhanced that standing. A solid team performance allied with some sparkling individual displays gave them a well-earned victory over a dangerous Uruguayan side. Team coach Jesús Ramírez insists that the quality of football his boys are playing should surprise no one: "Without wishing to sound impertinent, the game evolved exactly as we'd planned it. We'd studied the Uruguayans and knew what to expect by way of movement. In this category, that gives you a considerable advantage. Naturally we're delighted with the situation we find ourselves in. The boys thoroughly deserve it.
As well as being a studious tactician, Ramírez leaves nothing to chance when the team's preparation is concerned. "We spent a lot of time preparing on artificial pitches. For example, we went to Argentina and played against River Plate and Boca Juniors on this type of surface. We also repeated the experiment in other countries, and today we're seeing the results," says the coach. Nor is Ramírez getting carried away with the attention being focused on the team's star midfielder, Giovani Dos Santos: "He's an explosive player with remarkable talent. However, we shouldn't forget that he is surrounded by excellent team-mates."
A win over Australia in their second game today would assure them a berth in the last eight. However, as the coach explains, that in itself would not satisfy his ambitious young side: "Our aim is to reach the final and, logically, to go on and become world champions. That's what brought us here, and that's what all of Mexico is hoping for."
For Australia, however, the situation is much more complex. A second successive defeat could bring a premature end to the team's participation at Peru 2005, a scenario coach Ange Postecoglou would not have been contemplating on his arrival in South America last week. The Oceania champions will draw comfort from their battling performance on the opening day against Turkey, when only a late goal denied them a share of the spoils, and from the fact that they have history on their side. In the only previous meeting between the teams, at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Italy 1991, the Aussies ran out 4-3 winners. Fourteen years later, Postecoglou would love a similar result, though he admits it will be far from easy: "We'll be facing a great team, whose formation is very solid. Everyone was impressed with their opening-day performance. There's no denying Mexico have an excellent squad, in particular their two fantastic front men, but we mustn't forget that there are four very evenly balanced sides in this group. Nothing should be taken for granted".
Given what is at stake, Australia will not be lacking in motivation for tonight's showdown. More -worrying for the coach, however, is the team's state of mind after the crushing disappointment of losing their opening game at the death. Postecoglou, in serious yet cordial tones, admits that his players will have to "work hard and, above all, take their chances", something he says was "lacking in the first outing and ultimately the team's undoing".
Uruguay-Turkey, all to play for
The Uruguay-Turkey game throws up almost an identical scenario as the Mexico-Australia one. The European champions will be looking for all three points to take them through to the knockout stages, while the Charrúas will be hoping to rediscover the kind of form that they showed in the qualifying tournament in Venezuela in time to turn around their Group B fortunes. Uruguay's coach Gustavo Ferrín insists his side will have to do a lot better than against Mexico if they are to get a result: "We really weren't expecting a display like that. Now though, it's more important than ever to keep our spirits up and stay positive."
The affable Ferrín is only too aware that the Turkey game could be his side's last chance. "We need to win to if we're going to get a decent points tally but, make no mistake, a draw would also give us the chance to go through with a win in our final group game," he explains.
Neither result will be easy to come by given the strength of the opposition. Turkey are a battle-hardened side who are European champions for a reason. In his team's first outing, Abdullah Avci was thrilled to see his young charges edge out Australia with a late strike. "We wanted to win it more and took the game to the opposition. We created a lot of opportunities and demonstrated the quality of our play. Now we need more of the same against Uruguay," the coach says.
In spite of his team's promising start, Avci is under no allusions about how difficult it will be to beat Uruguay, or any of the sides for that matter: "In a tournament of this stature, you can't say that this team or that team will be easier to beat.. We're studying them carefully, and they all have our respect. That said, I believe my team is in with a chance." Just how far could his side go? "We came to Peru as European champions and are proud to be representing our continent. We're trying to produce the type of football that will make everyone happy." They certainly managed it in their opening game. Tonight will be a chance to do it again.