U-17 World Cup semifinals feature 3 powerhouses, one minnow

Associated Press
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On Wednesday morning, the final of the U-17 World Cup will be decided. In contention are three familiar faces and one very unfamiliar one.

Mali stands among habitual powerhouses Spain, Brazil, and England as the African nation looks to find a stunning path to the U-17 World Cup final. They will take on Spain in the semis, opposite a mouth-watering matchup between the electric young England side against a Brazil squad that took down Germany in the quarterfinals.

England will have its hands full with tournament favorite Brazil with a 7:30 a.m. ET kick from Kolkata. The young South American squad boasts wins over Germany and Spain already, and they have conceded just two goals all competition. Their attacking talent is incredibly balanced, with Santos product Lincoln running the show in attacking midfield. Internacional striker Brenner is his target man up front, while Cruziero’s Gabriel Brazao holds things down between the sticks, conceding just a penalty and an own-goal so far this tournament. Their captain is Palmeiras center-back Vitao, who ranked #16 on Sports Illustrated’s Top 20 Under 20 list, and he will lead the charge for Brazil’s first U-17 World Cup trophy since 2003.

England will be up to the task. They dispatched the United States in the quarterfinals thanks to a hat-trick from Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster, who has recently joined the Reds after spending much of his youth development at Chelsea. They have been prolific most of the time, but a 0-0 performance against Japan in the Round of 16 (where they won in penalties) leaves them vulnerable against a stifling Brazil defense. They will need to muck up the midfield, where Brazil makes its hay, in order to have a chance in the match. That might fall to Manchester City youngster Phil Foden, along with the more defensive-minded Tashan Oakley-Boothe of Spurs development.

What makes the Mali and Spain matchup – scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET in Navi Mumbai – so intriguing is that both teams lost their very first game of the competition. They have both recovered in spectacular fashion, with Spain finishing second to Brazil in Group D, while Mali finished second to Paraguay in Group B. Despite their early slip, the two sides have been spectacular.

Mali has outscored opponents 13-3 since their opening match loss, including a five-goal output against Iraq in their first knockout match. 17-year-old striker Lassana Ndiaye has been spectacular, tied for the tournament lead with five goals and the only man standing of the other two individuals level with him. On the other end, goalkeeper Youssuf Koita has made 19 saves, although he has just one clean sheet to show for it. This team has been here before, as runners-up at the 2015 World Cup, but their knockout path in that run included North Korea, Croatia, and Belgium.

They take on Spain who has been exactly what you’d expect from the European giants. After falling by a single goal to Brazil in the opening match, they have dispatched opponents by a combined 11-2, holding a pair of clean sheets in group stage matches but looking somewhat beatable in knockout games against France and Iran. Nevertheless, they have spectacular talent, led by captain and leading goalscorer Abel Ruiz, a striker in the Barcelona youth system. Another Barcelona youth product Sergio Gomez is a dangerous attacker down the left flank. This should be a match of stunning attacking quality and fabulous future talent.

Both matches will prove to be of delicious intrigue, with the stars of the future set to make their mark on the international stage.