Feature Photo: Associated Press
Italy made it again to the Top Four. The Azzurrini beat Mali 4-2 today in Tychy, Poland to book a place in the Semifinals of the Under 20 World Cup, an achievement already reached two years ago by coach Paolo Nicolato’s squad. Italy’s next opponent on the way to the Final in Lodz will be Ukraine, which beat Colombia 1-0 earlier in the afternoon.
In a World Cup where all favorite lineups are being inexorably pushed out, the Azzurrini now have legitimate chances of making better than the third place grabbed in 2017 in South Korea, especially if players like striker Andrea Pinamonti and goalkeeper Alessandro Plizzari continue to perform as they did against the African Eagles.
Inter home-grown striker Pinamonti (5 goals with Frosinone in the past Serie A season) scored twice for Italy after an own goal by Ibrahima Koné gave his side an early lead, and before Sassuolo’s Davide Frattesi could seal the win with a late header.
Milan’s third choice goalkeeper Plizzari, on the other hand, pushed back several scoring chances on the Malians’ part, both when the score was still even and when Les Aigles were trying to recover from the Azzurrini’s lead.
The last time Italy and Mali had faced each other was in another Quarter Finals game, at the 2004 Olympic Tournament in Athens. On that occasion, the Under 21 Italian selection saw the Africans off with an extra time lone goal by Cesare Bovo. The match ended in a pretty non-Olympic brawl that required the involvement of the Greek police to separate the contenders. Italy would eventually lose 0-3 to Argentina in the Semifinals.
In the final stages of the Under 20 World Cup 2019, however, the South Americans won’t be around. They were eliminated in the Round of 16 right by the tenacious Malians, who equalized twice Argentina’s lead to eventually prevail over the Albiceleste on penalties. Another sign that the way is paved for the Azzurrini?
So far, the Africans had distinguished themselves for their never-give-up spirit, a booming pair of strikers – Ibrahima Koné and Sekou Koita – and a rather shaky defensive line. They fully lived up to their name today, offering the Azzurrini an own goal and two blunders by their goalkeeper to put Italy on the driving seat, but managing to level up twice despite playing 70 minutes with one man less.
Coach Nicolato’s squad took the lead in the 12th minute when Salvatore Esposito shot a corner from the right side, and Ibrahima Koné fired the ball into his own goal while attempting a clumsy defensive clearance. Things got even worse for the African side in the 20th minute, as Ousmane Diakite knocked down Cagliari’s Luca Pellegrini with a vicious tackle that earned him a direct red card. A sad tournament ending for one of the best midfielders seen in Poland.
Mali didn’t renounce to attack despite the numerical inferiority, but exposed themselves to Raoul Bellanova and Alessandro Tripaldelli’s raids from both flanks, as well as to the combinations between Andrea Pinamonti and Gianluca Scamacca, with the gigantic Sassuolo striker less effective than his Frosinone counterpart.
Still, it was coach Mamaoutou Kane’s side to find the next goal with a lightning-quick one-touch action, culminating in a back-heel pass by Ibrahima Koné for Sekou Koita to beat Plizzari. African fans on the stands took courage and began shouting Mali! Mali!, well supported by their Polish counterparts – who must not have forgotten their elimination in the Round of 16 at the hands of Italy and a Panenka penalty by Andrea Pinamonti…
Milan’s goalie saved the day again in the 42nd minute, diving to his left to defuse another combination between Koita and Koné. Then, it was his youth teammate Matteo Gabbia’s turn to scare an unpresentable Malian defense, lifting off all alone to deliver a header that missed the target by a few inches.
The Azzurrini put their head ahead again with Captain Pinamonti, who believed in a ball that seemed lost, and surprised Mali’s goalkeeper Youssuf Koita on his near post with a shot fired from the end line. Koita temporarily redeemed himself with two saves on Luca Pellegrini and then again on Pinamonti, but the worst was yet to come for the 18-year-old African goalie…
Before that, however, Mali managed to equalize for the second time when substitute Davide Bettella slid while controlling the ball, giving way to Bouacar Traore. Mali’s number 10 sent the ball in for Mohamed Camara’s tap in from the center of the box.
Then Youssuf Koita stole the spotlight in the worst way again, as he failed to block an easy high ball, and clampered Andrea Pinamonti to recover it. Referee Ismail Elfath had no doubts and sent Inter’s home-grown talent on the penalty spot. Pinamonti chose a powerful conversion this time, and the Captain’s fourth goal in this Under 20 World Cup brought the Azzurrini to 3-2 with eight minutes to go.
Davide Frattesi wrapped up the match two minutes later with a classy looping header, darting past the static Malian center backs to make the best out of a wonderful long-range cross by Raoul Bellanova.
Game over? Not exactly. Mali kept showing their indomitable spirit and managed to win a penalty in the last seconds of stoppage time. But Alessandro Plizzari was insuperable and stretched to his left to deflect Sekou Koita’s shot out of the target.
Italy advanced to face Ukraine next Tuesday in Lublin, but Mali left the tournament with the honors of war. And, moreover, with no post-match fights this time.
June 7, 2019 – 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup Quarter Finals
ITALY U-20-MALI U-20 4-2
SCORERS: 12′ Koné (M, o.g.), 38′ S. Koita (M), 60′ Pinamonti (I), 79′ Camara (M), 83′ Pinamonti (I, pen.), 84′ Frattesi (I)
|ITALY U-20 (3-5-2): Plizzari; Gabbia, Del Prato, Ranieri; Bellanova, Frattesi, Esposito (68’ Bettella), Pellegrini, Tripaldelli; Pinamonti (88′ Olivieri), Scamacca (Carnesecchi, Loria, Candela, Buongiorno, Colpani, Capone, Gori, Alberico) Coach: Nicolato|
|MALI U-20 (4-4-2): Y. Koita; Fofana (91′ M. Traore), Diaby, Kanoute, Konan; Camara, Drame (85′ Kontè), Sissoko, Diakite; Koné (69′ B. Traore), S. Koita (A. Coulibaly, S. Coulibaly, D. Diarra, Konate, M. Diarra, Samake, N’Diaye) Coach: Kane|
REFEREE: Elfath (U.S.A.)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Sissoko (M); Red Card: Diakite (M)