Luis Norton de Matos comes across as a reasonable man with realistic ambitions. So far, he has managed the expectations well — at times even underplaying his team’s chances at the Under-17 World Cup. A week ago, India’s target was merely scoring a goal. On Sunday, however, they were talking about a win. And dreaming of the knockout stage. “If we win against Colombia we will be creating history,” de Matos said on the eve of India’s second group-stage match.
Depending on who you speak to, this claim is seen as a sign of a team brimming with confidence, or a bunch of teenagers getting ahead of themselves on the back of one gutsy performance which ended in a 3-0 defeat. The team’s ability to play as a unit, said the 63-year-old Portuguese, can take them through against the South American giants.
Nudged about his tactics, de Matos did not reveal much. So a journalist chose to ask Colombia coach Orlando Restrepo instead. “Coach,” he began, “how can India beat Colombia?” That, Restrepo insisted, can happen if India have more tournaments in “football mad cities like Kochi and Bombay” and get a deep pool of players who have enough match experience. In other words, he meant, India cannot beat Colombia on Monday.
The talk in the Colombian camp, instead, focused on the goal difference. They are in a precarious position after losing their opening match against Ghana 1-0 on Friday, the same day when USA defeated India 3-0. The top two teams from each of the six groups are assured a place in the round of 16, with four additional slots for the best third-placed teams.
For Colombia, this will be the match to not just get their first points of the campaign but also improve the goal difference, which is likely to be a decisive role in deciding the pre-quarterfinal draw. At the same time, India feel this is the match from which they can get something — a goal or a point, even all three of them.
A change in mindset
The two teams had played each other at a four-nation tournament in Mexico just a couple of months ago. That match ended in a 3-0 win for Colombia. But there is a visible change in the team’s mindset and players’ body language. Their dogged defending against a powerful American attack has given India the confidence of keeping Colombia at bay as well.
The training sessions, instead, have focused on attack. Against the US, India were particularly poor in their transitions from defence to attack. The passing in the final third was pedestrian and the few times they got in the US half, the players chose to showboat. De Matos, expressive and emotional, did not mask his anger every time his player chose not to pass.
So, on Saturday, the team played attack vs defence for nearly half an hour, with the attackers being taught the tricks to find gaps between the lines and playing the final pass. Despite this growing confidence, one fears India will be left defending for large parts once again.
South American flair
Colombia have players who possess flair, unlike the US who played a more direct game. They have players who are exceptional in one-on-one situations, strong to even trouble Ghana, who are the most physical team in the group.
US were one-dimensional; Colombia have multiple creative outlets. Their midfielders Robert Mejia and Yadir Meneses can play long diagonal passes to the flanks and dribble through the centre with ease. Up front, Deyman Cortes has looked threatening every time he has the ball while Leandro Campaz, on his left, is as dangerous on the flanks. They have slow build-ups but have the ability to shift gears and move ball swiftly in the final third.
As much as their skills, this will also be a test of the concentration of Indian players. “We have to be on our toes throughout,” de Matos said.
One aspect of the Colombian team that will be keenly looked at is the fitness. They were the first team to reach India so that they could acclimatse. But they looked tired barely 30 minutes into their opening match and towards the end, they were just dragging themselves. It was the same during their practice match before the World Cup.
It will take much more than just tired Colombian legs for India to get a result, though. There were a few sniggers when de Matos claimed he wants to win. But by the time he returned to training, the realist within him returned. “I would like to win but I used to say that if I can’t win, the best result is a draw,” he said.