A school of thought maintains that player development is largely about learning from mistakes. That does not, however, make them easier to bear. The abiding lesson is that, as players approach the peak of the footballing pyramid, mistakes are likely to be punished with increasing severity. In Finland, the ball had barely started rolling across the artificial turf when the painful learning process kicked-in.
To echo their opening fixture against Portugal in the U17 finals two months earlier, Norway set out to stifle their opponents’ fluent approach play with well-organised defending based on a back line of five – only to be punished for a careless ball-loss on the edge of the box and a misjudgement that allowed a cross from the bye-line to creep into the net via the far post. Creditably, they fought back to halve the arrears – hitting the woodwork three times in the process – but, just when an equaliser seemed imminent, a Portuguese counterattack converted a plucky performance into a 3-1 defeat.
Although suffering a similar reverse, the price paid by the hosts was for imprecisions in attack rather than defence. In a handful of 1v1 situations, Finland failed to beat goalkeeper Alessandro Plizzari in a match where they submitted Italy to severe pressure. At the other end, a lapse of concentration allowed Nicolò Zaniolo to thread his way past three defenders and, in contrast with the hosts’ endeavours, convert his team’s only 1v1 situation into a goal.
The Supreme Court of football passed another harsh sentence on the hosts in their following game. Bouncing back after conceding an early goal, Finland tested the efficiency of Norway’s transitions to 1-5-4-1 defending with fast, direct attacking orchestrated by key midfielder Saku Ylätupa, always ready to switch play or deliver the incisive pass in the final third. After an equaliser from the penalty spot, it was Ylätupa’s solo counter that put the hosts ahead and, with 2-1 on the scoreboard after 90 minutes, on track for victory – only for two late goals to punish lapses in their deep defence of the advantage.
The 3-2 defeat meant that only a victory against Portugal could open a pathway to the World Cup play-off game. But Hélio Sousa’s team, featuring many of the players who had lifted the U17 trophy two years earlier, had also paid a high price for defensive errors against Italy. After barely nine minutes, hesitation by the centre-backs allowed Italy striker Moise Kean to break clear and the belated attempt by Lucas Queirós to redress the balance prompted the Polish referee to reach for the red card. Unfazed by prolonged numerical inferiority, Portugal switched to a 1-4-2-3 structure and carried the game to the edgy Italians who fared better when pressing higher after the interval and managing their build-up play more efficiently. Portugal, despite their confident adherence to an attacking philosophy, were beaten 3-2.
Against Finland, their technique and movement added up to control – and two more lapses condemned the hosts to a 0-2 half-time deficit. After the break, higher, more aggressive pressure, allied with a shrewd substitution that promoted greater penetration on the left produced an encouraging quarter-hour of front-foot football, only for the momentum to fade and Portuguese counters to flourish – the last of them putting 3-0 on the scoreboard in the final seconds of added-time. Italy, in the meantime, extinguished Norwegian sparks by replying to a penalty with seven minutes remaining and clinching top spot in Group A, one point ahead of runners-up Portugal.
While Group A was going to the wire, Turkey provided the tale of woe in Group B where self-inflicted wounds spelt elimination after two games. An interception in midfield gave Vedat Inceefe’s side an encouraging start against England, only for marking errors at a free-kick and ball-losses at crucial moments to put them 1-3 down. A defensive error by England threw them a lifeline and a spirited late onslaught could have yielded an equaliser – but didn’t. Worse was to come against France. A goal down within two minutes, Turkey’s busy pursuit of a response left them vulnerable to rapier-sharp counters conducted with implacable efficiency. France’s nine goal attempts were all on target and five of them hit the net.
The 5-0 win provided much-needed relief for Bernard Diomède’s team in the wake of an unexpected 2-1 defeat inflicted by a Ukraine team that defended efficiently and resolutely in well-organised 1-5-4-1 formation and counterattacked with enough pace and purpose to provoke cautions for three of the France back four and a red card for centre-back Malang Sarr in the 64th minute with 1-1 on the scoreboard. The umpteenth counterattack allowed Serhiy Buletsa to strike a winner with four minutes remaining.
A similarly solid performance earned a point against England, who opened the scoring thanks to the excellent execution of a corner. Ukraine’s replied with a creditable individual action by lone striker Vladyslav Supriaha and, although fuel tanks were diminishing rapidly during the second half, Olexandr Petrakov’s team had enough in reserve to withstand sustained pressure.
In their final game, Ukraine effectively contained a Turkey team who, switching to three centre-backs to mirror their opponents, picked themselves up psychologically, worked hard and dominated possession for long spells – but without finding a knockout punch against accomplished defensive work. A single counter along the left flank allowed Ukraine to top the group.
England, starting the first with five at the back and the second with four, pushed hard at the beginning of each half in the do-or-die finale against France. But they struggled to cope with the high pressing, fluent technique and explosive pace of Bernard Diomède’s team and their efforts were comprehensively undermined by losses of possession in the defensive third, a careless back pass and slow reactions to counterattacks. The 5-0 scoreline sealed a group phase which ended as it had started – errors had been ruthlessly punished.
Third place consigned England to a FIFA World Cup play-off against Norway in which the ultimate price was paid for clubs’ refusals to release in excess of 30 players who might have been in Finland. Two goals in the closing minutes while Paul Simpson’s team was pushing for an equaliser clinched a 3-0 win that opened the World Cup gates to Norway.
When the first semi-final kicked-off in Vaasa a few minutes after the final whistle in Seinäjoki, few would have predicted that a game of 90 minutes would be a contest that lasted 30. Hélio Sousa’s surprise was the selection of the previously unused Pedro Correia to lead the attack – and within two minutes he had rammed in a rebound to put Portugal ahead. Ukraine’s counterattacking strategy was unstitched still further when key striker Vladyslav Supriaha limped off after 10 minutes. And, with heads dropping and legs flagging, Ukraine shipped four more goals between the 19th and 30th minutes as their back line of five struggled to contain the fluent fast-forward passing game of the rampant Portuguese. Even though feet were eased off the accelerator, the remaining hour was a formality.
In stark contrast, the second semi-final was played in top gear from start to finish – but was also at odds with the form book. Italy displayed tactical maturity and confidence against opposition rich in individual ability. France, with strong, athletic defenders; midfielders with a good range of passing and ability to turn and advance with the ball; and forwards with exceptional pace and dribbling skills. Italy needed to be on top of their defensive game to contain them – and they were. Rapid transitions between 1-4-1-4-1 defending and 1-4-3-3 attacking laid the foundations for purposeful counterattacking and more patient possession-based construction. Even so, it was nothing akin to a stroll in the park for Paolo Nicolato’s disciplined, committed and fully-focused team. France pushed forward relentlessly – especially in the second half when chasing the result – rattling the crossbar twice and frustrated by two goals disallowed for offside. Bernard Diomède’s team created enough opportunities to score but Italy pressed, tackled, blocked, defended collectively with hot hearts and cool heads. Although the goalkeeper and the back four formed the most visible containing wall, it was an entire team that worked tirelessly to keep a clean sheet.
And the goals went in at the other end. Just after the first-half cooling break, Sandro Tonali, outstanding as the holding midfielder, played the ball to the right, where three team-mates created an overload and allowed right-back Raoul Bellanova to cut the ball back from the bye-line and allow Christian Capone, making an inside run as striker Moise Kean drew centre-backs aside, to adroitly control and deliver an outstanding finish. Within three minutes, Nicolò Zaniolo read and intercepted a forward pass by Malang Sarr, who had run with the ball into opposition territory. With the centre-back far from home, Zaniolo’s through pass allowed Kean to embark on a solo run and beat the keeper with his right foot.
The remainder of the match was a tale of French pressure and Italian players who gave their all to prevent their opponents from getting back into the game. Their reward was a place in the final and a second meeting with group rivals Portugal.