A fantastic first 45 minutes of top-class football in Sharjah Stadium ensured Argentina's victory over Mali (3-1) to complete a hat-trick of wins and top spot for the South Americans in Group B of the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003. The result leaves the Africans' chances of making it to the last 16 hanging by a thread. Argentinian keeper Gustavo Eberto took an early bath for a second-half red card offence and will miss his country's next tie.
Argentina rested four regular first-team players prior to the second stage, but that did not stop them from dominating right from the kick-off. Hugo Colace spread the ball intelligently while Marcelo Carrusca and Neri Cardozo worked hard to offer him constant options. The first real chance fell to the feet of Cavenaghi, who lobbed the ball over Soumaila Diakite only to see his effort fall harmlessly on the roof of the African's net (8').
It would not be long before the South American captain troubled Mali again, this time with the sweetest of strikes that was repelled by the post (11'). A goal was only a matter of time; Osmar Ferreyra stepped up to a free-kick from the inside-right's position, and with a marksman's left foot struck the ball beyond the outstretched Diakite (1-0; 13').
Mamadou Diakite came close to levelling the match. The Mali flyer cut in on a piercing diagonal run from right to left that caught the South American defence on the hop. He just managed to get in a hurried effort over the oncoming Eberto, but his shot went behind for a goal-kick (18').
Germán Herrera then broke free again down the right and found Cavenaghi in space, but the striker was unable to keep a cool head and fired unexpectedly wide (20'). It was to be a fresh dead-ball situation that led to the Albicelestes increasing their lead: Ferreyra's cross was met by Leandro Fernandez for the ball to fall to Herrera, who leapt acrobatically to finish with a right foot volley (2-0; 26').
Mamadou Coulibaly's boys were looking groggy, but there was to be more suffering in store for them when Carrusca broke down the left and got in his cross. The ball struck Drissa Diakite and somehow ended up in the back of the Africans' net (3-0; 31'). It was clearly not Mali's night and if further proof were needed, Souleymane Dembele proceeded to back-heel in front of an open goal (35').
The second half began just as lively as the first. With not even a minute on the clock, Gustavo Eberto brought down Bakary Coulibaly in the box. Referee Frank De Bleeckere gave the Argentinian keeper his marching orders and pointed to the spot. Mamadi Berthe stepped up and duly slotted (3-1; 46'). Given the turn of events, coach Tocalli wasted no time in replacing Cavenaghi with substitute keeper Mariano Barbosa.
"It makes life more difficult for us not being able to count on Eberto for the next game, because it means we're left with just one goalkeeper in the whole squad. This week, I'll be looking at which of my outfield players could take over from Barbosa in the event of an emergency," the coach said after the game.
Some time was to pass before anything new happened at either end. After mounting an attack down the left, Ferreyra's left-footed shot flew wide of the mark (65'). Hadrien Toure's entry gave fresh life to an African attack that was seeing a lot of the ball but failing to make it count in the final few yards.
Argentina, meanwhile, were making the most of the holes the Africans were leaving behind in defence. Herrera caused them particular problems with his smart, darting runs. The forward was brought down by Boubacar Kone, who was shown the red card for a second bookable offence (78').
This was to be the last memorable moment of a match that was settled in the first half. The result means Tocalli's charges have notched up three wins in as many games and go through to the second stage as Group B winners. The Africans, meanwhile, have had their chances of qualifying dented and will have to rely on the results of other games going their way. "Sadly, it's out of our hands whether we qualify for the last 16 or not. We're in a tight spot, so I think the best thing to do is just wait," said Mamadou Coulibaly.