Under-20 World Cup: Argentina and Brazil young stars shining

South America has won the Under-20 World Cup more times than any other continent. And with surprise home advantage this year (Indonesia were stripped of hosting rights and Argentina stepped in at the last minute) there is a strong chance that South America might be able to chalk up another success — especially after a group phase where all five of its teams made it through with barely a glitch.

The luck of the draw has also kept them apart. With no South American derbies in this week’s round of 16, and only one possible in the weekend’s quarterfinals, a possibility exists of an all-South American final four.

Europe has four representatives in the round of 16. But the first line of resistance to South American dominance comes from Africa, with three clashes between the two continents over the next few days. Along with the United States, whio have yet to concede a goal, Argentina are the only team with a 100% record — and yet they have been handed what looks like one of the stiffer challenges of the second round when they face Nigeria on Wednesday.

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There is poetic justice in this. Argentina had not even qualified for the tournament, only to win a reprieve and a place when it became the host. Coach Javier Mascherano’s team is stronger than the one that disappointed in the qualification tournament — the introduction of Juventus winger Matias Soule, who has a touch of compatriot Angel Di Maria about him, and Internazionale playmaker Valentin Carboni has added an extra attacking dimension.

Home crowds are treating this group of youngsters as a proxy for Lionel Messi and his World Cup winners and the team are building up a head of steam. But Nigeria are potentially tricky. Mostly made up of home based players, they played a solid group phase and were only in real problems when they lost discipline and left themselves too open to the Brazilian counter-attack. This game is not a forgone conclusion.

The winners between Argentina and Nigeria will face the victors of Thursday’s meeting of Ecuador and South Korea. Ecuador are another team much changed from qualification, with a new coach in Miguel Bravo. It is, then, hardly a surprise that they took time to click, going down to a stoppage time goal in a tight game against the USA and then having to fight back from a goal down to beat Slovakia before thrashing Fiji. Their virtues are beginning to appear — they are quick and strong, with pacy, skillful wingers and plenty of quality from wonderkid Kendry Paez.

In the same half of the draw are Colombia, who followed two tight wins with a last gasp goal that gave them a 1-1 draw against Senegal — a heartbreaking elimination for the Africans in a well balanced group. The Colombians are solid defensively and have enough quality from the likes of Oscar Cortes, Yasser Asprilla and Tomas Angel to make them awkward opponents. If they get through Slovakia then there is more European opposition on the way — they will meet the winners of the clash between England and Italy.

In the other half of the draw are Brazil and Uruguay, the teams who duelled for the continental title earlier in the year. The Uruguay side is little changed, although Real Madrid‘s refusal to release centre forward Alvaro Rodriguez has come as a blow. Some of the stars of the qualification tournament — notably central midfielder and captain Fabricio Diaz — have not managed to hit the same level in Argentina.

Coach Marcelo Broli will be hoping that he and versatile striker Luciano Rodriguez are saving their best form for the knockout stages. Even without the stars firing on all cylinders, Uruguay are favourites to get past Gambia on Thursday — and victory would set up a quarterfinal against the winners of the tie between New Zealand and the United States.

In their Sunday’s group stage game against Tunisia, Uruguay ended up doing Brazil a favour. In second-half stoppage time Tunisia’s impressive defensive linchpin Ghaith Ouahabi first gave away the penalty that decided the game and then picked up a yellow card that will rule him out of Wednesday’s match against Brazil. Tunisia’s game is based around patient defence and the occasional counter-attack, and the loss of Ouahabi is a massive blow against a team with the potent firepower of the Brazilians.

Three goals down in the early stages of their opening group game against Italy, Brazil have responded well, and Tunisia will have to be at their best to hold winger Savio and striker Marcos Leonardo, backed up by an aggressive midfield trio of Andrey Santos (signed with Chelsea), Marlon Gomes and Marquinhos.

Coach Ramon Meneses made a bizarre return to Rio de Janeiro to call up the senior squad for next month’s friendlies. With the identity of Brazil’s opponents only determined with the last kick of the ball on Sunday — a dramatic comeback left France just a goal away from saving their campaign — there is little enough time to prepare for the second round game. If Brazil’s preparation has been affected by Meneses’ brief absence, Brazil will trust that they still have more than enough to get past Tunisia, and spearhead the South American challenge in the quarterfinals.