The Toulon U20 tournament is reaching the end of the group stage, and due to the five-team group structure, France have now played all their matches; while they started impressively, playing four matches in seven days took its toll, and they finished with a 3-1 defeat by Colombia, who are head of Group A with one still to play. Les Bleuets now face a nervous wait to see if they can hang onto second in the group and make the third-place match, as South Korea could overhaul them with a big win against the USA on Wednesday.
France started brightly and convincingly with a 4-1 victory over an occasionally hapless USA (their second goal simply should not have happened – notable that the US goalkeeper is called Cropper), the scorers were Coeff, Imbula, Bahoken and Ghezzal, but there was quality all over the park. The USA’s best player was captain and goalscorer Hector Joya Jimenez, but France simply outclassed their opponents. Two days later, and against a robust but not particularly technical DR Congo, France were already starting to fray – they won 1-0 through an early strike from Benjamin Jeannot, but then got blocked and could not get through again, mainly thanks to an impressive performance from one Riffi Mandanda (yes, a relation) in the DRC goal.
On to match 3 and les Bleuets were starting to look properly frazzled – in a stop-start game in which South Korea perhaps went down a little easy, neither side could score. A 0-0 draw, while Colombia, also on six points, had their feet up for this round, set things up for a decisive match four. If France won, they would top the group and be in the final; draw, and it would be out of their hands; lose, and that was it.
A cracking opening had the teams fairly even; coach Willy Sagnol made a tactical change at 20 minutes bringing on Paul-Georges Ntep for Kevin Mayi. At the half-hour mark, after some juicy challenges from Colombia, and Sagnol, as traditional, giving the fourth official a piece of his mind, there was an enforced change; Stephane Bahoken limping off in some distress, to be replaced by Jeannot. The Nice attacker, who scored his Ligue 1 debut goal (actually 2) against Montpellier in March, has apparently injured his hamstring, how badly is yet to be confirmed. Things looked promising, as first Remi Mulumbu then Gianelli Imbula crashed the ball off the crossbar, and France were really threatening; just before half-time, Ntep broke the deadlock with a header from a corner. 1-0 up at the break, and France were looking towards the final.
Colombia, however, had not taken their eyes off the prize, and a match-up with Brazil, dominating in Group B. At 52 minutes, Jherson Vergara levelled it with a towering header from a freekick, as France’s marking let them down – as an observer observed, “the freest free header ever free headed”. Impressive throughout, you can see why AC Milan have apparently paid out £1.76m to bring the young defender to the San Siro. Then it got worse; less than five minutes later and Palomeque got Colombia’s second, his powerful freekick taking a deflection off the wall.
France had to equalise to stand a chance of reaching the final, and had goalkeeper Abdoulaye Diallo to thank for keeping them in it with two saves in the latter stages; there was a small squabble, some bookings, and then as France threw everything forward in the hope of a goal, the final nail in the coffin. Colombia broke, an attacking line of four streaking past the clearly knackered defence, and Andres Renteria scored their third.
While France’s schedule is certainly not the only reason for their troubles – Colombia were excellent, and the final should be a fabulous match – the gradual tailing-off of performance and results was doubtless at least partly caused by it. There are many positives to take, some fine performances – Mendy, Imbula, Ntep, Mayi (best just buy Le50 to check up on them), among many others – but also weaknesses to work on, fitness and concentration being the main ones.
There is one game left to go in the group stage, before the final two matches on Saturday. With a little luck, and a rest, France will be in the third/fourth play-off, to face (probably) Mexico or Portugal, both of whom displayed skill and fierce determination in their epic 3-3 draw on Tuesday. It will be another stiff test for Les Bleuets; they have the quality, now they need to regroup, and hope for the chance to show what they can do.