Despite an early setback in the U17 World Cup in India, Spain’s side has grown to become real challengers for the title ahead of the quarter-finals
The opening game performance was far from ideal, but Santi Denia’s U-17 squad has managed to do something pretty tricky in any short tournament: shape-shift and adapt.
Losing against Brazil (1-2), another of the top contenders for the U-17 World Cup being played in India, was a huge setback. The way Spain was defeated was also tough: hapless, powerless, unable to score in the second half, asphyxiated by the heat and humidity while Brazil simply defended their slender albeit sufficient advantage.
From that point, matters improved for the Spaniards. Their second fixture against Niger took place under a completely opposite scenario. Spain no longer suffered physically, as their endurance was sustained due to total ball possession. The African team did the running while Denia’s players passed the ball and generated a huge number of chances to win 4-0.
Denia himself made changes to the starting XI. The biggest impact was provided by César Gelabert, who was on the bench in the opening game but started against Niger. His chemistry with striker Abel Ruiz was impressive, and his mobility was a handy addition to Ferran Torres’ sly dribbling on the right-wing. At the back, Juan Miranda – absent from the fixture against Brazil – returned in stellar fashion in the next game, and the team’s consistency was hugely upgraded.
North Korea didn’t provide much of a challenge for a team that was already thinking about the Last 16 game. The Koreans were effortlessly beaten 2-0 with an outstanding Gelabert – who scored one and assisted Moha on the second – and an overall attitude change. Being knocked down by Brazil in the first game pushed the Spaniards towards a grittier mentality, and that was going to be put to the test against France in the first knockout round.
One of the players who best represents this shift in gears is Sevilla’s attacker José Lara. Against France, when the game was in a tight spot, Lara came off the bench as Denia’s hive-stirrer, buzzing between French defenders and pestering with his pressure. Eventually, he managed to squeeze between enemy lines and use his head to snatch a ball from goalkeeper Fofana, and a split second later won the penalty that Abel would convert into the 2-1.
Before that, however, Spain had already shown an impressive mentality against early setbacks. This Spain is much stronger mentally than the one we saw in the inaugural fixture. The team has hardened and adapted to the physicality required in India’s 90% humidity environment. They waited for their chance and it would come, eventually. And it did.
Spain’s comeback against France allowed them to move on to the quarterfinals, where they will face a surprising Iran on Sunday, a team that knocked-out Mexico (2-1) in the previous round. And they will do so in high spirits, confident after a humbling opening defeat that gave the squad a wake-up call. Intense, motivated, threatening and with plenty of talent to choose from, Santi Denia’s men are now, more than ever World Cup contender material.