THE SEMIS REPLAYED - A day after the Czech Republic fired twice in quick succession to see off Austria, Hugo Tocalli at last managed to steer Argentina to the final of a FIFA tournament by masterminding his team's win over Chile. The two victors will now face each other in Toronto on 22 July to decide who leaves Canada with the trophy, and they ought to know plenty about each other after meeting in their opening match.
One of sport's oldest clichés is that you should never tinker with a winning team, and the first semi-final at Canada 2007 demonstrated why in no uncertain terms. Having employed Erwin Hoffer as a devastating supersub in the two previous rounds, Austria coach Paul Gludovatz opted to break with tradition and start the talismanic striker in his first eleven.
The Rapid Vienna man needed ten minutes to find a way past Gambia and just 120 seconds to punish the USA after coming off the bench in those games, but as a starter he was unable to make the same difference. Most dangerous in rainy conditions, he also had to contend with the unremitting heat in Edmonton, and in the end it was Miroslav Soukup's Czechs who stuck by old habits.
The Reprezentace have a knack for scoring twice almost within the blink of an eye, as they did in the 74th and 77th minutes against the Japanese, the 79th and 82nd minutes against Panama and the 56th and 66th minutes against Korea DPR. This time, they merely changed halves, opening their account after four minutes and delivering a demoralising final blow with just a quarter hour gone. For the Austrians, there was no coming back.
The Czechs also seemed to have the upper hand in the battle of the haircuts, having visited the barber before their Round of 16 tie to either shave their heads or come out with extravagant Mohawks. Taking their lead, the Austrian players shaved their shirt numbers into their temples, and if the idea was to recognise each other better, it sadly did not work - they failed to find each other for the whole 90 minutes.
Argentinians make experience count
There were extravagant hairstyles on display in Toronto too, where Chile forwards Arturo Vidal and Mathias Vidangossy resembled cockerels after leaving themselves with red Mohicans. All the crowing came from the Argentinian corner after the match, though, but while many expected Sergio Aguero or Maximiliano Moralez to do the early damage, it was Angel Di Maria who put the Albiceleste on their way on 12 minutes, making light of the rain-soaked conditions after a huge storm had battered the ground before kick-off.
'When it rains, it pours', they say, and the Rojita were really in trouble when Gary Medel saw red a minute later. Gerardo Corte came within centimetres of equalising with a spectacular lob from 50 metres out, yet his team were decidedly out of luck and the Blue and Whites finished them off with efforts from Claudio Yacob (65') and Maximilano Moralez (93').
Perhaps the Argentinians were simply more experienced at this level, with this their eighth semi-final appearance in 12 FIFA U-20 World Cups. Added to that, current trainer Hugo Tocalli has never fallen short of the last four of a FIFA event, having taken the U-17s to the semis in 2001 and 2003 and steered the U-20s to the same round in 2003 and 2007. This is the first time he has managed to navigate a team through to the final, however: proof once again that you should never say never.
The Chileans were obviously crushed after the match, but they leave the tournament with much to be proud of. And that is especially true of goalkeeper Cristopher Toselli, who went 492 minutes without conceding a goal to surpass the invincibility record held by Claudio Taffarel since 1985.
As for who will lift the trophy, that will of course be decided between the Argentinians and Czechs, whose tournament ends as it began on 30 June. It ought to be a fascinating showdown as well, pitting the experienced South Americans against the hungry European newcomers, the magicians of the Pampas against the giants of the East. So roll on 22 July for Argentina versus the Czech Republic take two!