THE DAY REPLAYED - The longest day of the year proved to be a day to forget for the Asian sides at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005. China, Japan and Syria all put in spirited performances in Enschede and Tilburg before bowing out of the competition. Their futures certainly look bright, but the day ultimately belonged to Germany, Brazil, Italy and Morocco, the first teams through to the quarter-finals.
Latecomers to the stadium in Tilburg on 21 June will have missed China racing out of the starting blocks yet again. As early as the fourth minute, Tao Chen curled a magnificent free-kick into the top corner that left German goalkeeper René Adler rooted to the spot. But the Chinese barely had time to celebrate their 12th strike so far before their own goalkeeper Cheng Yang gifted Christian Gentner with a simple chance to bring the scores level. Two goals had been netted in just five minutes… and the excitement was far from over.
Cheng Tao buried a penalty to put China back in front with his third goal of the tournament, but Nicky Adler responded with half an hour gone. Applying the finishing touch to a German counter-attack, his goal doubled the Mannschaft's total since the competition kicked off, putting their scoring troubles in the first round well behind them.
Fans and players alike took a well-earned deep breath at half-time, and the match continued with a flurry of chances after the break. A degree of clumsiness had crept into the finishing, but, with two minutes left, the game's outstanding player Michael Delura set up Marvin Matip to head in a priceless winner. It guaranteed Germany a berth in the quarter-finals, making this their best showing in the event since 1987, the year they reached the final. For the Chinese supporters and journalists who had turned out in force, though, there was nothing but bitter disappointment.
In Enschede, the afternoon's other match could hardly have been more different. Meeting for the very first time in a FIFA World Youth Championship, the USA and Italy spent most of the first-half circling each other warily. That was to be expected, perhaps, given how unconvincing the Stars and Stripes had been as an attacking force in their previous encounters, managing just two goals in three games. Nor could the Italians claim to have been much more inspired, their 4-1 triumph over Canada aside. It always looked likely that the deadlock would be broken from a set-piece, and so it proved when Hunter Freeman gave the Americans the lead a minute before the half-time oranges.
Not for the first time, Italy finally roused themselves into action once their backs were to the wall. And they had their deadly duo of Graziano Pelle and Daniele Galloppa to thank once again, following their exploits against the Canucks. Galloppa was at the origin of the first goal thanks to a deflected shot moments after the restart and his partner-in-crime sent the Italians on their way to victory a handful of minutes later.
That sparked a more defensive approach from Paolo Berrettini's charges, who dropped back and waited for chances to attack on the break. It turned out to be a smart ploy, as it was from an Italian counter that the unfortunate Sacha Kljestan put the ball in the back of his own net. Taking their place in the last eight, the Italians also maintained their unbeaten record in three meetings with CONCACAF sides at the FIFA World Youth Championship. Their opponents came away totally crestfallen, their 40th match in the global event ending in the worst possible fashion.
Brazil through in second gear
Having somewhat stumbled through the tournament so far, reigning champions Brazil found themselves up against the surprising Syrian team in their Round of Sixteen tie in Tilburg. The match-up will have brought back fond memories for the Auriverde, with the only fixture between the two sides at this level a resounding 6-0 victory back in 1995. Although they dominated proceedings, the Seleçao struggled to unlock Syria's exceptionally well-organised defence.
And it almost seemed as if they never would until their excellent right-back Rafael surged into the area and won a penalty following an over-zealous challenge. With just a few minutes to go before the interval, the Coritiba ace stepped up and converted the kick himself. Brazil continued to control the play in the second-half, without ever finding their rhythm completely. They never really had to, however, as the Syrians lacked imagination going forward, despite a courageous final push in the dying moments.
Ironically, the one truly remarkable fact about Brazil's performances is that they are yet to concede a goal after five games. Whoever would have predicted that the Samba kings' calling card would be their defensive rigour?
Back in Enschede, the evening encounter brought together outsiders Morocco and Japan, two countries who had never faced each other at any level in the past. The stadium was packed to the rafters, with Moroccan fans just about outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts, who had travelled from the four corners of the globe to watch their team in action. And the electric atmosphere soon transferred itself to the pitch, where the two rivals committed themselves to an energetic, attacking game right from the kick-off.
There were brilliant performances from Robert Cullen and FC Twente star Karim El Ahmadi, playing on his home ground, but neither one of them was able to make the difference. Indeed, the match seemed destined for extra-time until Mouhssine Iajour sent the Moroccan supporters wild with delight in the very last minute of stoppage-time.
It was the Raja striker's third goal of the competition and it sends the Atlas lion cubs further in a FIFA World Youth Championship than they have ever been before. For their part, Japan will hope to improve their record against African sides next time around, having managed just two wins in eight games.