Italy and Morocco go head-to-head in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 in Utrecht on Friday with both sides on a roll. A first-ever spot in the final four on the horizon, both coaches could not hide their emotion following fighting victories against the United States and Japan in the Round of 16.
Italy's beginning in the competition, a 2-0 loss to Colombia followed by a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Syria, had their demanding press baying for blood. But, typically, the Azzurri have been able to get the results when it has mattered. Thriving on the pressure, Paolo Berrettini's boys knocked out Canada 4-1 and slipped into the last 16 as one of the best third-place finishers. Then up against a well-prepared, expertly drilled and talented United States side, the Blues dug deep, bringing up lessons learned from their rich footballing tradition. One down at the break, they hit back in classical Italian fashion, killing the Americans off 3-1.
"We are getting better with every game," beamed Berrettini. "(Emiliano) Viviano, (Graziano) Pelle, (Andrea) Coda…we have some very important players. Most of them are in the reserve teams for their clubs but although it is not easy to play at this level, they are grabbing their moment in the spotlight."
All three players were superb against the United States. After an unconvincing display against Syria, Viviano pulled off a series of impressive saves including a leaping top-drawer tip over to prevent Italy going 2-0 down. Pelle, just one centimetre shorter than the goalkeeper at 1.94m, was a constant menace in attack. As well as cleverly leading the line, the Catania player is scoring decisive goals, adding a well taken strike against the U.S. to the two that helped his team qualify for the knockout stage. And after a slow start, Coda is growing into a complete midfielder, breaking up attacks and steaming forward with inexhaustible energy.
"In front of so many people and television cameras, it is important my players show they have the character to succeed," added the coach. "It is the victory of force, of will and of enthusiasm. They have proved they are not afraid of anyone, and are on the verge of making history."
Making their mark
Never having reached the last four before in a youth championship, Morocco are equally keen to make their mark. After a 3-1 defeat to European champions Spain in the opening match, the Africans have not looked back since, defeating Honduras (5-0) and Chile (1-0) before another solitary goal, this time in the dying seconds of injury time, got them past a stubborn Japan.
"I'm not thinking about being the first coach to have made it to the semi-finals," said their coach Jamal Fathi. "I'm just happy that Moroccan football is progressing."
In contrast to the mild mannered, avuncular Berrettini, the shaven-headed Fathi, a former international, is a fiery, restless personality never at ease unless he is screaming, gesticulating or manoeuvring his players. Coupled with the vast support Morocco enjoy on Dutch soil, it makes for a noisy and amusing atmosphere during matches.
"I will not change the way I behave. I'm just giving my payers instructions," he said of his touchline antics. "The crowd have been great. They made a lot of sound at the right moments to help us out."
And with two of his squad based in the Netherlands - Karim El Ahmadi (FC Twente) and Rachid Tiberkanine (Ajax) - is hoping the rage at the Galgenwward stadium in Utrecht on Friday will be enough to dismantle Italy's well-oiled machine.
"There is no logic in football," he added. "Maybe the United States were the better team but Italy won. For that, they are well known. We just have to play to our potential and see if we are good enough."