Talking tactics: Goals everywhere but midfield holds the key
The England U-17 squad arrived at the practice pitch beside the Salt Lake Stadium at about four in the evening on Tuesday, exactly 25 hours before their World Cup semi-final against Brazil, arguably the biggest game in the short careers of these prodigious talents.
"For an England U-17 team to qualify for the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time ever makes us very proud," said coach Steve Cooper. "It means the development is on the up and is a good example of the work going in at the clubs and academies. Most of all the credit goes to the players."
Brazil come into this match having won 12 and drawn the other two games in their World Cup campaign, which includes the qualifiers in South America. That unbeaten sequence has been based on a water-tight defence, one that has maintained 10 clean sheets in the 14 matches played on their way to this semi-final. Defensive midfielder Victor Bobsin from Gremio, sitting next to coach Carlos Amadeu, says, "I expect a very difficult game against them. We respect every opponent and England is no different. We have to be strong in our defensive system, and we expect them to be aggressive too."
So what are the potential match-ups that could determine the fate of this clash? Who are the individuals who could make a difference to the outcome? What would you expect out of this clash?
Midfield will determine the tempo
Bobsin and his partner in central midfield, Marcos Antonio of Atletico Paranaense, have been key to Brazil's solidity right through the tournament. Antonio combined deftly with the diminutive Palmeiras midfielder Alan to seize control of midfield against Spain in the tournament opener in Kochi, taking over as Brazil trailed by an early goal.
On Wednesday, they will be faced with a midfield where Chelsea's George McEachran will work alongside either one of Tashan Oakley-Boothe of Tottenham Hotspur or Crystal Palace's Nya Kirby, to neutralise the fluid movements of the Brazilian midfield. Cooper would have taken note of how Germany rattled Brazil with high pressing and long balls, and might look to employ that as an option, especially with the strength his centre-forward Rhian Brewster and Callum Hudson-Odoi possess.
Brazil don't often employ the wings in matches, but could be forced to do a lot of defending along the width of the pitch, with Foden and Hudson-Odoi likely to operate down the sides for England. The extent of damage England's fleet-footed wingers can do will be directly proportional to how best their central midfielders can boss their way around their Brazilian counterparts.
No shortage of goalscorers
Both Brazil and England have players of exceptional quality, ones that can turn the momentum of any match around on a given day.
Paulinho of Vasco da Gama has shown that quality already against two European teams, pulling out winners against Spain and Germany to keep Brazil on track for a fourth world crown at the U-17 level. His strike partner Lincoln from Flamengo missed a few chances against the Germans, but proved himself a nuisance with his physical presence. With Alan and Brenner floating in and out of spaces and the latter being joint top-scorer with the front two, Amadeu has plenty of players in attacking positions who could play a decisive role in a match of this magnitude.
England themselves have had eight different scorers for their 15 goals at this World Cup, and barring Borussia Dortmund regular Jadon Sancho, all the rest will be available for selection on Wednesday. Liverpool's Brewster hitting form with the first hat-trick by an England player at the U-17 World Cup in the quarter-final against U.S. is a welcome development for a side bursting with attacking talent. Midfielder Morgan Gibbs White became the newest entrant into that club in the last game, and he normally comes on as a second-half substitute, at best.
The comforting thing for both coaches is that they have followed a basic football dictum -- the simplest way to win games is by scoring one more than your opponent.
So what could it all come down to?
Brazil and Germany were impossible to separate in their quarter-final, and England and Brazil are even closer when it comes to strengths and the apparent lack of any major weaknesses.
Fitness could play a factor, though that is another area where this English team have been top-class, finishing with strong performances in the last quarter of an hour of each game. Expect a fast-paced game, and an early goal could be handy, especially for Brazil, who will feel right at home with the extent of support they will get at the Salt Lake Stadium.
Neither side is leaving anything to chance, though. Curtis Anderson, the Manchester City goalkeeper for England, saved a penalty against Japan and then promptly stepped up to convert his team's next kick. Cooper said later that England's list of kick-takers is always pre-decided, and whoever finds his name in it -- outfield player, substitute or goalkeeper -- would always take their slated position.
However, this doesn't mean Brazil are lagging behind with their plans -- they finished their last practice session close to 8 PM with a series of penalties taken against all three goalkeepers, including first-choice Gabriel Brazao.
The number of kick-takers? No less than 10.
This could, after all, be the game of their lives. A place in a World Cup final is up for grabs, and their careers will never be the same without that tick mark against their names.