As the debates raged in the build-up to the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013, Group C was widely viewed as one of the least-predictable and closest-matched sections – thanks in large part to the teams’ relative lack of experience at this level.
Competition debutants Morocco, however, refused to follow this script and took the group by storm with an attractive, engaging and highly effective brand of football. In their opening 3-1 win over Croatia the Moroccans gave a tantalising taste of what they had in their locker, though in their second game they were neutralised by a disciplined Uzbekistan outfit – who shared the spoils in a goalless draw.
Not to be denied, the North Africans ensured their passage through to the knockout phase via an impressive and goal-laden 4-2 success over Panama.
Uzbekistan, for their part, have arguably been the most tactically astute side of the tournament so far. With a relatively simple strategic approach, but one that was followed to the letter by each of the players, the Uzbeks kept things tight at the back and showed patience and persistence in attack.
Underlining those very qualities in their 2-0 opening win over Panama, the AFC nation then demonstrated their cool under pressure to stifle group revelations Morocco and keep another clean sheet. And come their final game against a Croatia team also chasing a knockout berth, Uzbekistan again showed remarkable resolve to score late and seal a narrow 2-1 triumph.
Panama, meanwhile, had harboured high hopes when touching down on Emirati soil, only for these to be dashed by three consecutive defeats. Falling at the competition’s first hurdle with losses against Uzbekistan, Croatia and Morocco, Los Canaleros did at least bring to an end a run of 437 minutes without scoring.
Locked level at 1-1 in their final group game, a result which would have sent both through the next round, Uzbekistan and Croatia looked to be heading for a point apiece. The latter nation were finding the going increasingly tough, however, even after levelling the scores in the first half through main man Alen Halilovic.
Thus it proved when the latter was forced off through injury on the hour and, with around ten minutes of the game remaining, a fine goal from Uzbekistan’s Jamshid Boltaboev put paid to Croatian hopes. Inconsolable after the final whistle, the Croatia players knew just how close they had come to a berth in the Round of 16.
Morocco demonstrated a level of commitment and talent that hinted they could go far at UAE 2013, particularly if attackers Karim Achahbar, Younes Bnou Marzouk and Nabil Jaadi – with three, two and one goal apiece – keep up their torrid form. Quick, precise, clever and clinical in their forward play, the North Africans look to have the firepower to trouble any opponents.
In the Uzbekistan camp, captain Otabek Shukurov shone thanks to his discipline, astute problem-solving and leadership ability – qualities which make him coach Dilshod Nuraliev’s ideal on-the-pitch right-hand man. Another to watch is forward Boltaboev, a player blessed with intelligent movement, refined technique and powerful shooting.
208 – The number of minutes that Uzbek keeper Sarvar Karimov went without conceding, a sequence ended in some style by Croatian starlet Halilovic in the 28th minute of the sides’ third group game.
“This was our second appearance at a World Cup at this level and, having reached the last 16 last time out, we’d been hoping to make the next phase here too. I wasn’t expecting us to lose all three games, but I’m pleased with the work the lads put in – they really grafted hard. The work doesn’t stop here and they’ll keep moving through the system. Now’s the time for them to grow as players: they’re still learning and this tournament will have taught them a lot,” Jorge Dely Valdes, Panama coach.