The four matches taking place on day two of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates feature no fewer than six sides with little or no experience in the competition. While Venezuela and Morocco are complete newcomers, Croatia, Panama, Uzbekistan and Russia are all making only their second appearance in the world finals at this age level.
The other two teams in action on Friday have a far better idea of what to expect. With two and six U-17 World Cups already behind them respectively, Tunisia and Japan will be hoping to make their extra know-how count when they begin their campaigns.
Match of the day
The Russians make their return to the competition 26 years after winning it, back in the days when they competed as the Soviet Union. The reigning European champions should prove tough opposition too. Extremely well organised at the back, they conceded just one goal in the continental finals, where their goalkeeper Anton Mitryushkin excelled in the penalty shootouts that decided both their semi-final and the final.
Facing them will be a Japan side with far more U-17 world finals experience than any other team in the group. Like the Russians, the Japanese have also been in excellent form of late, having reached the final of the Asian qualifying competition. Explaining what he wants to see from his players, coach Hirofumi Yoshitake said: “I don’t want them to be scared of making mistakes. I want them to play without fear and to show their talent.”
Croatia take on Morocco in the opening match in Group C. The Europeans have high hopes and a clutch of match-winners, while the Africans, who have a quality squad themselves, have been working hard in preparation for what they hope will be a lengthy stay in the UAE.
Panama and Uzbekistan, the other two teams in the section, face off in Fujairah, with the Central Americans full of confidence after their impressive run to the final of the CONCACAF U-17 Championship. The Uzbeks, meanwhile, have pedigree of their own as the reigning Asian champions.
Kicking off the day’s Group D action in Sharjah are tournament first-timers Venezuela, who will be aiming to build on their runners-up spot in the South American qualifiers, and Tunisia, with both sides anxious to score points before facing the section’s two favourites.
Player to watch
Alen Halilovic (CRO)
The midfielder signed professional terms with Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 16 and shortly afterwards became the Croatian top flight’s youngest ever goalscorer. Halilovic then went on to make history with the full national team, becoming the country’s youngest debutant of all time when he played against Portugal in June this year. The record-breaking teen even has UEFA Champions League experience under his belt and a Croatian league title on his CV, and is sure to loom large for his team in the UAE.
1 - The number of times in 14 editions of the U-17 World Cup that the host nation has lifted the trophy. Mexico did it in 2011. Can UAE follow suit?
“We’ll be coming up against a very well organised team with some fine players. Croatia have always had a reputation for good football but we know them well and we’ve been working hard. We are sure we’ll do a good job and we hope to come away with a good result,” Morocco coach Abdellah el Idrissi looks ahead to his side’s Group C debut.