It was meant to be a clash of two continental champions as Mali squared-off against Spain in the second semi-final of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in India.
With the European champions going head-to-head with their African counterparts, it was expected to be a clash of styles with the slick passing and movement of the Spaniards pitted against the quick, incisive and physical Mali team.
In the end, it was the La Rojita who asserted their dominance in the match right from the very start as Mali found it hard to deal with Spain’s attacking impetus.
The front-line of Abel Ruiz, Sergio Gomez and Ferran Torres have been a handful for opposing defences throughout the tournament and once again the trio was in top form as the European champions sliced through Mali at will at the Dr. DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai.
Having started their campaign on a disappointing note with a loss to Brazil, the Spaniards have looked ominously better with each passing match and as such, the warning signals for the Africans were displayed much before the encounter had even started.
That is not to say that Mali had not shown fine mettle themselves coming into the game. The African champions started off the tournament with a loss just like the Spaniards and have been impressive in each outing following that game.
After the Europeans had started the match with all guns blazing, their persistence was duly rewarded within the opening 20 minutes when Cesar Gelabert was brought down by Diaby in the Mali box leading the referee to instantly point to the spot.
Ruiz, who has been in scintillating form throughout the tourney stepped up and made no mistake to fire his side into the lead.
For a brief period in the match, it was a see-saw battle between the two sides as the Africans upped the ante in search of the equalizer, leading to chances being created at both ends.
However, a second goal for Ruiz and Spain just before the interval proved to be a sucker-punch for Mali. It was perhaps at this point that Spain had all but assured themselves of a spot in the final.
With Spain’s attackers in the form of their lives, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Africans to come back from two goals down. But to be fair to them, they did threaten the Spanish goal on multiple occasions in the second period.
At the same time though, Mali’s desperate forays made them vulnerable at the back and Ruiz, Gomez and co. were favourites to add a third.
Lassana N’Diaye has been the focal point for Mali’s attacks throughout the World Cup but the star-striker was dealt with in impressive fashion by the Spanish defence with chances coming at a premium for the forward.
Perhaps the breaking point for the Africans came in the 61st minute of the match after a beautiful long-range strike from midfielder Cheick Doucoure looked to have crossed the line after hitting the cross-bar but the lineman and referee remained unmoved in the face of Mali’s protests as the score remained at 2-0.
The final nail in Mali’s coffin was struck by Torres after he rose highest to head in a delicious cross as Spain exploited the gaps left open by the Africans in pursuit of a goal.
To their credit, Mali struck back immediately to reduce the arrears to 3-1 but it would be too little, too late. With Spain tiring in the closing minutes, the Africans huffed and puffed in search of their second goal but their efforts would bear no fruit.
In the end, the difference in class between the two sides was evident on the pitch as it was in the score-line. For many periods in the match, the attacking interplay between Spain’s forwards and wingers was sublime and their immaculate control over possession could pose a major headache for England in the final of the U17 World Cup.
The Spanish Armada does look to be peaking just at the right time and with a repeat of the European U17 Championship final now set up, it will take a brave person to bet against Santiago Denia’s wards in their title clash with England.