The clever Japanese shocked the competition in their complex Group B, topping a section also containing Argentina and France. The Kiwis, for their part, came through as third-place finishers in their group, relying mainly on grit, determination and team spirit.
With the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 entering the direct knockout stages, all is on the line every time out. Japan have been playing some of the most coherent and appealing football at these finals with a stylish short-passing approach and a quick counterattack. Their last outing, a 3-1 win over fancied Argentina, was a perfect illustration of the team’s best qualities – speed, technical ability and ruthless finishing.
Even with the outstanding play of Takumi Minamino and Hiroki Akino, Japan coach Hirofumi Yoshitake was still not satisfied though.
“We were guilty of too many mistakes,” he says.
Picking up seven points in a group-winning performance, one wonders how good Japan could be if they finally meet with their boss’s approval.
New Zealand will need to be at their very best when they line up against the Samurai Blue.
Reaching the knockout stages for the second U-17 finals on the trot is a clear indication that the side from Oceania is very much on the up. But the question remains – will their spirit, team play and determination be enough to see them past the Japanese?
Captain Luke Adams and goalkeeper Scott Basalaj marshal a sturdy rearguard that conceded only two goals in Group D. And in Stephen Carmichael, they have a true poacher, his three goals against Uzbekistan standing as an indication of what he’s capable of.
“We’re not just good at the back – we can penetrate and attack well too,” Adams says.
“We just have to focus on ourselves and the way we play football. We don’t have a lot of individual stars but we’re committed to playing as a team, both in defence and attack. Our style is suited to the knockout rounds as we go all-out all the time.”
But Yoshitake is also approaching the match in a positive frame of mind and has plenty of belief in the ability of his side.
“I’ve got great confidence in my players but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to take one match at a time, play our game and remain calm,” he says.
This year’s event marks the second time both New Zealand and Japan have reached the knockout rounds at a FIFA U-17 World Cup. The Young All Whites are making their second appearance in the round of 16 in a row after also booking their passage two years ago in Nigeria.
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