At the start of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 few would have predicted that Iraq and Uruguay would be meeting in the semi-finals. Yet, after overcoming some improbable hurdles that is exactly where the two sides find themselves, just one game away from Saturday’s grand final. Picking a winner between the two looks no easy task.
Iraq-Uruguay, Trabzon, Wednesday 10 July, 21:00 (local time)
Whatever happens, the Iraqis have already recorded their best ever performance in the competition, surpassing their run to the last eight in 1989. Such an achievement looked well beyond the Lions of Mesopotamia when they trailed England 2-0 late on in their opening match, a scoreline they turned around to salvage an ultimately vital point.
Out of sorts for 75 minutes against the English, the Iraqis have since shown their ability to perform for both halves and beyond, their battling qualities coming to the fore in the extra-time defeat of Paraguay in the last 16 and the penalty-shootout win over Korea Republic in the quarter-finals.
Like the Iraqis, Los Charrúas, who are on course to match their competition-best run to the final in 1997, have also improved as the tournament has progressed. Since going down to Croatia in their group opener, the Uruguayans have strung together wins against New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Nigeria and, most impressively of all, pre-tournament favourites Spain. As they showed in ending La Rojita’s challenge, the Uruguayans also have the ability to go the distance, a quality that could prove useful against a side with the energy of Iraq.
Both sides will be at full strength, with Iraq’s Mohanad Abdulraheem having served his one-match suspension against the South Koreans in the last round.
The player to watch
Diego Laxalt (URU)
The Iraqi defenders will need to keep a close eye on the left-sided Charrúa midfielder. A handful for every opponent he has faced since the start of the tournament, the dreadlocked Laxalt has impressed in each of his side’s five matches to date, though he has yet to score or provide an assist. Should he do so here and help send Uruguay through to the final, it will only illustrate how influential he is for the South Americans and how shrewd Inter Milan have been in acquiring his services for next season.
1 - Iraq are the only one of the four semi-finalists yet to taste defeat at Turkey 2013. This also the first time that the Asian side has reached the last four of a FIFA competition at any age level, though they did make it all the way to the semi-finals at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.
“Uruguay are one of the best sides in South America if not the best, and they’ve just beaten Spain. It’s going to be tough but we’re looking to turn in a great performance. I’m convinced we’ll make the final,” Iraq coach Hakeem Al Azzawi.
"We've tried to imagine how the game will go, but there are a thousand different ways to play this match. We are two strong teams who never give up, in very good physical condition; it will be a very interesting game between two teams who work together very well. We have to enjoy the moment and, of course, try to score one goal more than them to get to the final," Gaston Silva, captain and defender of Uruguay