A battle of contrasting football styles will be on view when classical Spain cross swords with a robust Mali in the semi-finals of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, in Navi Mumbai, on Wednesday.
The contest at the D Y Patil Stadium is expected to produce top-drawer football, with Euro Under-17 champions Spain adopting their Tiki-Taka (short-passing) style of play and the African champions their free-flowing and all-out attack.
Both teams progressed to the last eight after losing their opening games, Spain to another top title-favourite and South American champions Brazil and Mali to another Latin American outfit, Paraguay.
Since Spain’s matches thus far were mostly in the southern coastal city of Kochi, Mali have a slight advantage of having played at the D Y Patil Stadium in two Group B games before travelling out and returning to the same venue in under a fortnight’s time.
How much of an advantage the familiarity of the playing surface will be for Mali will be known on Wednesday with one small difference from their stay and play earlier on – the rains have gone away.
In both of Mali’s previous games at the D Y Patil stadium, rain rendered the ground wet; even in the quarter-finals against fellow-Africans Ghana they had to brave a soggy field in Guwahati before going through.
Three-time Euro Under-17 champions Spain will be confronted by the hard-tackling Africans who also play at a fast pace. The outcome will be determined by which team lasts longer in the trying conditions although the game has an 8 pm start.
After losing to the stylish Brazilians, who too have advanced to the semis, Spain have not put a foot wrong. After brushing off the challenge from Niger and DPR Korea comfortably, the Spaniards had a tough game against fellow-
Euro outfit France at Guwahati and won on the back of a penalty goal by their leading scorer Abel Ruiz.
Striker Ruiz has scored four goals in the competition, including the first in the 3-1 victory over Iran in the quarters, and will certainly be tightly marked by Mali’s defenders.
‘La Rojita’ have another ebullient forward in Sergio Gomez and the deep Mali defensc will have their hands full in keeping him and Ruiz at bay.
Mali have a top goal-tender in Youssouf Koita to give the defenders before him a lot of confidence.
Mali, the 2015 finalists, too have an enterprising forward in Lassana N’Diaye who has pumped in five goals out of the 15 they have scored in the competition so far.
They have other key goal-poachers too in striker Hadji Drame and attacking midfielder Djemoussa Traore and the Spanish defense will have to be extremely vigilant in not allowing space to the quick-footed Mali players.
The fact that Mali have made 128 attempts at goal so far is an indication of how attacking they are.
There will also be an intense battle for midfield dominance between the two teams and is expected to dictate the course of the match.
Mali: Alkalifa Coulibaly, Boubacar Haidara, Djemoussa Traore, Fode Konate, Mamadi Fofana, Mohamed Camara, Hadji Drame, Abdoulaye Dabo, Seme Camara, Salam Giddou, Mamadou Traore, Mahamane Toure, Soumaila Doumbia, Siaka
Sidibe, Abdoulaye Diaby, Youssouf Koita, Mamadou Samake, Ibrahim Kane, Lassana N’Diaye, Cheick Oumar Doucoure, Massire Gassama.
Spain: Alvaro Fernandez, Mateu Jaume, Juan Miranda, Hugo Guillamon, Victor Chust, Antonio Blanco, Ferran Torres, Mohamed Moukhliss, Abel Ruiz, Sergio Gomez, Nacho Diaz, Pedro Ruiz, Marc Vidal, Alvaro Garcia, Eric Garcia, Diego Pampin, Jose Lara, Cesar Gelabert, Carlos Beitia, Victor Perea, Alfonso Pastor.