By DAVID MOSSE
No country has been more irritated by the emergence of Spain in recent years than Brazil, which always took for granted being the main attraction at every tournament and the great purveyor of The Beautiful Game. A quarterfinal clash at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup might not seem like much, but Brazilians hope Sunday's triumph over Spain in penalty kicks was a small step towards putting their universe back in order.
Spain controlled the first half hour right up until Henrique smacked a shot off the crossbar and Willian — in an offsides position — gave the South Americans the lead by pouncing on the rebound. From then on, a classic ensued with both sides creating numerous chances. Rio de Janeiro native Rodrigo equalized for Spain early in the second half, sending the match into extra time where two substitutes shined.
Dudu put Brazil back in front before Alvaro Vazquez notched his tournament-leading fifth goal to level matters again. His joy would be short-lived, however, as Vazquez was one of two Spaniards along with Jordi Amat to be denied by Gabriel in the shootout, while Brazil's youngsters, in stark contrast to their more experienced countrymen at the Copa America, held their nerve, converting all four attempts.
Next up is a clash with Mexico, which is seeking to become only the second country to capture the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups in the same year after Brazil achieved the feat back in 2003. Juan Carlos Chavez's side has improved with each game and pulled off a mild surprise by knocking out hosts Colombia on Saturday. Edson River's brace and Erick Torres' goal accounted for the scoring in the 3-1 victory.
Colombia enjoyed greater possession and looked dangerous throughout with James Rodriguez, as always, pulling the strings and Luis Muriel lurking in the penalty area. Mexico's counterattack was absolutely lethal, though, while goalkeeper Jose Rodriguez put forth an impressive performance. Expect a similar strategy against Brazil in what should be a great game with Torres and Ulises Davila beginning to find their form.
A miserable summer for Argentina mercifully came to an end on Saturday, as Walter Perazzo's side was eliminated by Portugal on penalties following a scoreless draw. Erik Lamela recovered from a knock picked up in the previous match opposite Egypt to start against the Lusitanians, but the former River Plate starlet was clearly not himself and the South Americans created very little in a dull match.
Juan Iturbe did provide a spark after coming on in the second half, while Nelson Oliveira kept Argentina's back-line busy, but neither team looked like scoring. The drama came in the penalty shootout where Portugal fell behind 3-1 before staging a remarkable comeback, as goalkeeper Mika stopped three straight attempts to clinch a semifinal berth. Amazingly, Ilidio Vale's side has scored only three goals so far.
Nigeria had no trouble finding the back of the net, but a shaky back-line proved too much to overcome against France on Sunday, as the Flying Eagles crashed out of the competition. French substitute Alexandre Lacazette came on much sooner than usual and broke the deadlock early in the second half before Nigeria equalized late in regulation through Maduabuchi Ejike, setting up an incredible extra session.
Goals from Gueida Fofana and Lacazette in the first half of extra time seemingly put the match out of reach, but Ejike pulled one back with nine minutes remaining and John Obuh's side piled on the pressure until the very end. Fans of attacking soccer will no doubt mourn Nigeria's exit after the Flying Eagles scored 15 times in five games, but France has found its footing and is a serious threat to go all the way.
Here is a closer look at the semifinal matchups:
France vs. Portugal: Wednesday, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Portugal hasn't conceded a goal so far in 480 minutes and much of the credit belongs to captain Nuno Reis, who continues to marshal the back-line with aplomb. The absence of Servette midfielder Sana through suspension will cause some headaches for Vale, but striker Alex returns, hopefully to provide some support for Oliveira, who has been forced to shoulder all the responsibility offensively.
Lacazette has been a revelation for France is now among the leading scorers of the tournament with four goals, but Gilles Sunu went off with an injury after half an hour against Nigeria and it remains to be seen whether he'll be available. Chelsea's Gael Kakuta arrived in Colombia with a big reputation and has yet to leave his mark, while Antoine Griezmann is a dangerous threat as well.
Brazil vs. Mexico: Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Brazil boss Ney Franco has experimented quite a bit throughout this tournament, but the lineup that started against Spain looks to be his strongest with Danilo at right back and an old fashioned strike partnership up front. Casemiro was limited offensively in the previous match, but the Sao Paulo midfielder likes to bust forward, while Oscar drops back to dictate play from a deeper position.
Mexico had been the tournament's most wasteful team in front of net through the first four games, but Juan Carlos Chavez's side was amazingly resourceful against Colombia. It remains to be seen whether Taufic Guarch returns to the lineup, while Chivas standouts Davila and Torres will be counted on to provide inspiration.
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