In what was a very even group, the sound organisation and no-nonsense approach of the Europeans proved decisive. This Irish grew in stature with each passing game and displayed tremendous flexibility, with 19 of the 20 players called up playing some part on the field and three of their six goals scored by defenders. Snapping at their heels were Côte d’Ivoire, showing lashings of attacking potency counter-balanced by a sometimes alarming lack of organisation in defence and midfield. The Saudis were seen at their best going forward, while the Mexicans never quite succeeded in doing themselves justice. Read on for full end-of-term reports.
1 – Ireland Republic, 7 pts
Third at the U19 European Championship in 2002, the Irish slipped into the United Arab Emirates with no great fanfare, but as the matches passed, they quickly confirmed themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Forming a compact, well-organised unit, Gerry Smith’s lads eschewed the spectacular as they effortlessly took the group by the scruff of the neck. Their opening victory over the Saudis (2-0) was most revelatory with regard to the proficiency and vision of striker Stephen Eliott, who finished the first round with three goals to his credit. Supplying him was right-winger Willo Flood, two years younger than his teammates but seemingly unstoppable if allowed space down the flank.
Their second game against Côte d’Ivoire was a trickier affair altogether. Despite trailing twice, the Irish fought back to salvage the point (2-2) “with loads of heart”, as Smith enthused after the game. The athletic prowess possessed by the Greens was epitomised by defender Stephen Paisley as he scored from a header and put his heart and soul into protecting his goal. And if they got past him, opponents were faced with a last line of defence of the highest calibre in keeper Wayne Henderson. Their last group game against Mexico (2-0) served as a showcase for their physical potential and underlined their ascendant graphic. A tight unit, good in the air and fast going forward… such are the Irish qualities the Colombians will need to counteract in the next round.
2 – Côte d’Ivoire, 5 pts
Côte d’Ivoire came to the Emirates renowned as a team rich in attacking qualities, and proceeded to prove on the pitch that their reputation was well-founded. In the course of their opening victory over Mexico (2-1), the Junior Elephants carved out a plethora of opportunities, many of them created by the much vaunted star of the team Antonin Koutouan. But in Arouna Kone and Adolph Tohoua, they had two less trumpeted names blessed with remarkable strength and skill. All things of beauty have flaws, however, and the Ivorians were hampered by a wastefulness in front of goal and a tendency to switch off, as occurred against Ireland (2-2).
Within their team, which incidentally was lacking four important components not released by their club in elgium, the vital role played by captain and right-sided midfielder Jean-Jacques Gosso should not go unmentioned. A talented ball-winner, playmaker, striker of the ball and last-ditch defender, he hustled and harried to great effect in front of the polished, if panic-prone central defensive pairing of Gballou Kouyo and Souleman Bamba.
3 – Saudi Arabia, 2 pts
The team managed by Daniel Roméo were indisputably the unluckiest in the group, living proof of Mark Twain’s assertion that ‘there are lies, damn lies and statistics.’ For the Sons of the Desert performed to a very high standard throughout, not only in attack, where Eisa Al Mahyani and Naji Majrashgi bamboozled defence after defence with their pace and technique in tight areas, but also in defence, where Osamah Al Harbi and Saad Al Abouad hardly put a foot wrong between them. In the centre of the park, Ahmed Ateef also proved his worth as a gifted provider, supplying the dual attacking spearhead with a string of inviting through balls.
In the end though, it was a lack of ruthlessness in the final third that cost the Saudis their qualification. This deficiency was clearly linked to a lack of physical sharpness, which was painfully apparent against the Irish in particular. But the Saudis can return home with their heads held high.
4 – Mexico, 1 pt
The Tricolores were a disappointment in the UAE. Touted as outsiders for the championship and arriving in town with the avowed intention of reaching the final, the side coached by Eduardo Rergis only roused themselves from their torpor when time had run out. Beaten by Côte d’Ivoire in their first match, outplayed by the Saudis in their second, it was as if their tournament only started with the third game against Ireland. By then, it was too late, however, as they failed to make up for lost time (0-2).
In a side clearly missing the creative influence of injured playmaker Alberto Medina Briseño, the sheer physical effort and aerial prowess of striker Aldo De Nigris stood out. Also eye-catching in spells were Fausto Pinto on the left, midfielder Francisco Torres and forward Mario Ortiz. Revealingly though, their busiest player was by some distance José Martinez in goal, who gave an excellent account of himself, saving his side from some potentially humiliating scorelines. Scant consolation, no doubt, to the irascible Rergis, memorable for his ire as he sat in the stands during the last match against Ireland.