By DAVID MOSSE
If Brazil intends to avoid the drama of another penalty shootout on Saturday when it takes on Portugal in the final of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Ney Franco's side must become the first team to find the back of the net against Portugal, whose remarkable shutout streak in this tournament reached 570 minutes following Wednesday's 2-0 semifinal victory over France.
An early header by Danilo and a 40th-minute penalty from Nelson Oliveira was all the scoring Ilidio Vale's men needed thanks to an impressive back-line led by captain Nuno Reis. Goalkeeper Mika came up big when called upon, including denying Clement Grenier with a superb flying save in the 13th minute, while Gueida Fofana and Gilles Sunu squandered numerous chances as well.
Even the introduction of Alexandre Lacazette made little difference, as Les Bleuets continued to pile on the pressure but were unable to break through. Portugal won despite being outshot (19-6) and outpossessed (61-39) by a wide margin, and its remarkable run is already drawing comparison to that of Greece in the 2004 European Championships. The Iberians have five goals in six games.
The toughest test awaits, however, in the form of blood brothers Brazil, who are hungry for a fifth U-20 title and battle-tested after overcoming Mexico by 2-0 scoreline on Wednesday. The Brazilians dominated possession but labored for large portions of the match with Mexico actually creating the better chances until Henrique came to the rescue, scoring twice in the final 10 minutes.
His second strike moved the Sao Paulo hitman level with Spain's Alvaro Vazquez atop the scoring charts with five goals. Once again Brazil benefited from timely subsitutions, as Negueba and Dudu provided the assists on the goals, and Franco also rearranged his entire defense in the second half with Juan moving to left back and Casemiro dropping into a centerback role to replace him.
Like France, Mexico will rue several missed opportunities, including a shot from Ulises Davila that whizzed by the post just moments before Henrique's opener. Fellow Chivas standout Erick Torres had a goal correctly ruled out late in the first half and missed an incredible chance to pull a goal back just two minutes from time. Marvin Pinon and Edson Rivera were also denied by Gabriel.
It was nonetheless a successful tournament for Mexico, which built on the momentum from the recent Gold Cup triumph and U-17 World Cup title, while France posted its best-ever showing in an U-20 World Cup, so the third-place game might not be such a depressing affair. A number of players on both sides look capable of contributing to their senior teams down the road.
The same is true for Brazil and Portugal, who will clash in Bogota, bringing the curtain down on a spectacular summer of international soccer. These two countries also met in the final back in 1991 when a Portuguese team coached by Carlos Queiroz and featuring Luis Figo defeated on penalties a Brazilian side that included Roberto Carlos. Will history repeat itself?
Here is a closer look at the two remaining matches:
Third-place game: Mexico vs. France, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Mexico's finishing problems came back to haunt them after a temporary respite in the quarterfinal against Colombia, but Davila and Torres have shown plenty of promise and will look to cap off this tournament in style. It remains to be seen whether Taufic Guarch will keep his place in the starting XI, while Jorge Enriquez is the key figure in the center of the park for El Tri.
The magic finally ran out for Lacazette against Portugal, as the super sub was unable to add to his tally of four goals. Lacazette is deserving of a start as a reward for his performances the past three weeks. France concludes a strange tournament in which none of the players expected to shine left much of a mark, including Gael Kakuta, who may see more time Saturday.
Championship: Brazil vs Portugal, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
The versatility of players like Danilo continues to be one of Brazil''s trump cards along with a terrific bench, which has provided a spark in every game. Breaking down Portugal will not be easy, however, especially with Philippe Countinho fading in recent games. The Inter Milan playmaker needs to perform well alongside Oscar for Brazil to have any chance of creating opportunities.
Portugal relies almost exclusively on Oliveira for inspiration up front, but striker Alex returned from suspension to contribute against France, providing an assist on the first goal. Servette midfielder Sana should be back in the side and Caetano is also a possibility, as Vale seeks his best lineup. Reis is the key man at the back and will shadow Henrique.
Who do you think will win the U-20 World Cup? Which players have impressed you the most? How do you see the third-place match unfolding?
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