Author: Dan Edwards
Publish date: 2023-05-24 23:51:34
So far, the kids are alright. Not great, not world-beating, but certainly not bad either, which has been enough to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
There was a certain amount of trepidation going into the FIFA U-20 World Cup over just how well the host nation would fare. This was the same team, after all, which endured a disastrous attempt at qualification which saw them win just one of their four games and fail to reach even the final round at the start of the year, before FIFA’s decision to strip Indonesia of hosting duties and Argentine Football Association (AFA) chief Claudio ‘Chiqui’ Tapia’s cat-like reflexes saw them both sneak in through the back door and hold the front door open for the rest of the participating countries.
Add to that a number of painful withdrawals, as the likes of Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Buonanotte and Nico Paz were barred from playing by their European clubs, and expectations were moderated to say the least around Javier Mascherano’s young charges. But so far at least results have been positive, with two wins in two over Uzbekistan and Guatemala seeing them through to the knock-out rounds with a game to spare.
Admittedly, the calibre of the two opponents, particularly the latter – who followed up a series of faintly ridiculous spying accusations against Mascherano’s coaching staff with a particularly uninspired performance to go down 3-0 – means that any optimism should still be tempered. Indeed, Uzbekistan flirted with what would have been a humiliating upset in Santiago del Estero after taking advantage of typically shoddy defending to go ahead, before Alejo Véliz and Valentín Carboni restored order with two superbly taken goals to save the hosts’ blushes. Those two, along with Boca full-back Valentín Barco, have been key to Argentina’s success so far, while Huracán’s Juan Gauto stole the show against Guatemala with a stunning display and the Albiceleste‘s tweaked defence looked slightly less brittle the second time round.
Perhaps nobody is more relieved than Mascherano, whose first coaching experience had looked destined to end in disaster before finally being convinced to give the U-20s another try. “We worked on a lot of good things that we had done in the first game,” the ex-Barcelona and Liverpool star told reporters after the Guatemala victory on Tuesday. “I am happy to qualify [to the next round] too. But we have to keep building and grow.”
Grow they must, in order to face the stiffer challenges that lie ahead. Argentina next face their biggest test yet in the shape of New Zealand, who have also navigated unbeaten through their opening two games against the same opponents and are on the verge of clinching their own berth in the next round.
With plenty still to be defined, the last-16 could throw up any number of tantalising clashes, including possible meetings with South American rivals Ecuador or Brazil which would be several magnitudes more difficult than anything they have faced to date.
Another catastrophe has been averted, but the young Albiceleste and their coach still need to keep improving, particularly at the back, if they are to hold any hope of repeating the nation’s numerous past U-20 World Cup triumphs and win the title for the first time since 2007.