Words by Jimmy Aidoo
MALI – African Youth Championship semi-finalists
In Group D: with Mexico, Serbia and Uruguay
Mali’s preparation for the World Cup leaves much to be desired and has arguably been the worst amongst the lot touching base in New Zealand for the prestigious competition. Les Aiglons only opened camp in Toulouse with barely one week to the commencement of the mundial with only 12 men, courtesy of the tardiness with which the Malian Football Federation made liquidity available for the start of preparations.
Going into the tournament, Mali’s real success will hinge on their strong back-line in which goalkeeper Sory Ibrahim Traore will need to perform impressivelly once again. The 19-year-old, who like his idol Manuel Neuer interprets the goalkeeping role to include playing like a libero when needed, leaked just one goal in the three group games at the AYC. He was superbly assisted by Aboubacar Doumbia and Youssouf Kone, who occupied the two defensive flanks.
Coach Fagnery Diarra will be somewhat concerned about the goalscoring abilities of his team though, as the six goals from five matches in Senegal was the lowest tally of the African qualifiers for New Zealand.
MEXICO – CONCACAF champions
Sergio Almaguer’s side are a balanced, all-round team with numbers to back that up at both ends of the pitch. Securing their World Cup ticket by scoring 18 goals and conceding just three in the process, Almaguer employs a fluid 3-5-2 formation which creases into a 4-4-2 or a 5-3-2 formation depending on which stage of the game they are and the situation.
The Senegalese technical brains will have to dig deep to find a way to stop midfielder Hirving Lozano, who finished as the tournament’s joint top scorer with five goals to his name, and enjoyed a fruitful partnership with striker Alex Diaz. El Tri have a backline led by centre-back Rodrigo Gonzalez, who is always there to do the mopping up at the back whenever they are caught in an apparent counterattack situation.
URUGUAY – CONMEBOL runners-up
Earned their rights to the tournament by placing 2nd in Sudamericano Sub-20 which they hosted. With the best goalkeeper in the tournament in Gaston Guruceaga, and an obdurate back-line protected by industrious midfield duo Mauro Arambarri and Nahitan Nandez, Uruguay proved a hard side to break down and let in a mere five goals in nine games.
This is an exciting side with a very stingy defense coupled with a very dangerous combination of Gaston Pereiro and Franco Acosta. They also have an excellent options in attack with wide midfielders Rodrigo Amaral and Fabian Castro. Fabian Coito’s boys present a very formidable opposition to the Les Lionceaux in New Zealand.
SERBIA – UEFA semi-finalists
Veljko Paunovic’s men head to New Zealand on the back of a 4th place finish at the UEFA U19 championship though they remained unbeaten throughout the tournament- losing both the semi-final and final matches on penalty shootout, making them genuine title contenders in New Zealand.
A typical Eastern European side, Serbia’s main strength is that they are a cohesive unit. A solid team with a desire and passion to succeed. Their gameplan is based on the tireless work of combative midfielders Sasa Zdjelar and Maksimovic, who both impressed in Hungary, as did defenders Srdan Babic and Vukasin Jovanovic, both of whom made the team of the tournament.
This will be their very first appearance on the world stage and they have been thrown into the deep end with Serbia, Mexico and Uruguay. This could be either one of these two possibilities; a very good run or a getting-to-know-you exercise. With an unimpressive camping base, Les Lionceaux will have their job well cut out for them when the tournament starts on June 30. I am really not sure anyone has enough brass in the chop to bet on a Senegal quarter final appearance.