The first game which took place on the final Hexagonal Matchday of the 2017 U-20 South American Youth Championship saw Argentina face Venezuela. Below are video highlights, a brief summary of the game and, most importantly, @DarrenSpherical‘s armchair talent-spotting…
Argentina 2-0 Venezuela
CONMEBOL U-20 South American Youth Championship 2017, Hexagonal Group Stage, 11 February 2017 (YouTube)
Venezuela came into this final encounter knowing that a win could put them in with an outside shout of claiming the title, whereas avoiding a defeat by five goals would at least confirm their World Cup qualification. For Argentina, a five-goal hammering would ensure their progress, but a win by anything less would leave them at the mercy of subsequent events – and so it proved. Indeed, in a game in which Los Pibes dominated from the start, it nevertheless looked as if they may be outright frustrated by the best overall defence in the competition. That is, until Lautaro Martínez scored twice in quick succession at the end of the first half; his first came after he took a pass in his stride and struck home and his second was an opportunistic looping header from a long ball. Afterwards, with Venezuela shaken, Argentina’s objective seemed plausible. However, though after the break they enjoyed the majority of the attacks and forced some fine saves from opposition goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez, the clock gradually ran out on the white-and-blue boys. When the final whistle was blown, they looked as if they felt the seemingly inevitable would send them packing, yet just over two hours later, fear was turned to elation as Brazil failed to beat Colombia, gifting Argentina the fourth and final World Cup berth. By contrast, Venezuela, though perhaps not capping off an otherwise memorable tournament in the ideal manner, greeted the end of the match with unbridled joy as they will be travelling to the Under-20 World Cup for the first time since 2009.
He appears to only score vitally crucial goals but his team-mates will long be grateful that he got another two here. In doing so, with a tournament total of five goals Lautaro Martínez (No. 9, Racing Club) helped elevate himself into a position where he can be justifiably proclaimed one of the top players of the past 25 days. The opener against Venezuela came after 43 minutes when he received a pass from the right from strike-partner Marcelo Torres (No. 21, Boca Juniors); with two good touches, Martínez took the ball into the area before firing low across goal into the back of the net. Barely a few minutes later, Martínez got his second as a long ball from Joaquín Pereyra (No. 18, Rosario Central) surprisingly went over the head of a defender; immediately behind him on the edge of the area, Martínez looped a header which caught goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez off-guard and went over him to make it 2-0. With these two goals, Argentina suddenly looked as if they could go on a rampage, but alas, they were to be thwarted, with the closest Martínez coming to getting a hat-trick actually occurring straight after his second, when he blazed a knock-back over. He did also have another chance much later on in the 79th-minute when he turned and struck from the edge of the area, but his shot also went well over.
Otherwise, though Los Pibes took to this game with an intent rarely seen in recent days, no other player really had a game worth salivating over, though some players did nevertheless try to make things happen. These were Argentina’s other notable forward forays:
In the eighth minute, Pereyra had a weak shot from over 25 yards out which went wide; more substantially in the 13th minute, following a hanging cross over to the right side of the area, Lucas Rodríguez (No. 7, Estudiantes de La Plata) stabbed an effort that clipped the outside of the post and went behind – though goalkeeper Fariñez had this covered. In the 28th minute, Rodríguez had another half-chance though this strike from distance went comfortably wide; a couple of minutes a later, a slightly better effort came from 30 yards on the inside-right from Federico Zaracho (No. 19, Racing Club), which bounced awkwardly in front of Fariñez who nevertheless blocked. A greater opportunity occurred shortly afterwards when Martínez returned a one-two to Rodríguez just inside the area, though just before the latter could hit the trigger, a defender crucially intervened for a corner. Then, just before Martínez opened the scoring as well as straight after the break, Pereyra got a couple more shots in, with the second a much better attempt, though both of these went wide of the post.
Otherwise, Argentina’s best chances to extend their lead in this half all occurred within a minute or so of each other. Indeed, in the 56th minute, Tomás Conechny (No. 20, San Lorenzo) received a dinked ball in space on the left edge of the area and fired a shot that was only marginally deflected over. From Conechny’s subsequent corner, fellow substitute Ezequiel Barco (No. 10, Independiente) connected with a strong header that was well-parried at close range; soon after, a shot was fired in low from the edge of the area that again required a fine save, with the rebound being narrowly diverted from the path of Torres. Subsequently, Argentina gradually had to accept that their fate would be in the hands of others, with a stoppage-time right-footed strike from Santiago Ascacibar (No. 5, Estudiantes de La Plata) that swerved wide some 30 yards out proving to be their very last throw of the dice.
They thus greeted the final whistle with apprehension, though after they sat through the following 0-0 draw between rivals Brazil and bottom-boys Colombia, their faces became pictures of joy and relief. Despite their inconsistent campaign, they have squeaked through in fourth and shall be off to South Korea in May for the World Cup, a tournament that they have won a record six times.
Rafael Dudamel’s men came into the game simply needing to avoid a heavy loss to guarantee World Cup qualification and played accordingly. Indeed, perhaps it was partly due to Argentina’s greater urgency for goals, but Venezuela were on the back-foot for much of this game.
For the first 42 minutes, despite their lack of adventure, they did a good job of frustrating their opponents; Yangel Herrera (No. 8, Manchester City) put in a notable last-ditch challenge in the fourth minute and the defence collectively forced Argentina into long-range attempts and half-chances. However, they were rocked by two goals at the end of the first half and looked vulnerable to concede more afterwards.
Yet, though the defenders deserve plaudits for regaining their composure and not succumbing to an avalanche of goals, goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez (No. 1, Caracas FC) in particular is worthy of recognition for some crucial saves. Indeed, though he was perhaps unfortunately placed for the second goal due to anticipating his defender to head away, he otherwise looked alert throughout the game and his shot-stopping abilities were called into action in the 57th minute. Indeed, he first pulled off a close-range parry from Barco’s header and not long afterwards did well to see a shot from the edge of the area come through a cluster of players, which he blocked low.
From an attacking perspective, aside from one or two harmless efforts from Ronaldo Peña (No. 9, Las Palmas, Spain), Venezuela were not much of a threat. Their best and only real chance came from Yeferson Soteldo (No. 10, Huachipato, Chile) whose 53rd-minute free-kick clipped the top of the crossbar; otherwise, to a decreased degree, the diminutive dribbler showed some nice footwork and took some other set-pieces which came to nothing.
Nevertheless, as the second half wore on, it became increasingly clear that Venezuela were on their way to their first Under-20 World Cup since 2009 – elation thus greeted the final whistle on the pitch and back home. Eight years ago, Salomón Rondón was part of that impressive squad who progressed on home soil, yet though a handful of his team-mates have since gone on to earn senior caps, none could be said to have also become integral to the national side. Thus, though three individuals in this year’s rather outstanding crop have repeatedly stood out (Herrera, Soteldo and Fariñez) and several others have also caught the eye, one can only hope that this can be built on in upcoming years with greater success.
Otherwise, to keep track with the careers of these and many other talented South Americans, please follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter.