Group C of the 2017 Men's U-20 World Cup looks destined to produce a fashionable alternative to the heavyweight tournament favorites. The only question being: which one?
AFCON U-20 champion Zambia and UEFA U-19 Championship semifinalist Portugal are the clear favorites to qualify for the knockout rounds from this group. But if either Iran or Costa Rica can challenge the perception that the African and European qualifiers in their group are a cut above, then it won't take much imagination to start viewing either the Asian or CONCACAF team in Group C as a contender for a deep run in this World Cup.
Zambia 2-1 Portugal
The opening match of Group C was a battle between its presumptive favorites. The first half seemed to favor Portugal, not least because Zambian striker and AFCON U-20s MVP Patson Daka was forced off due to injury before half-time.
But Zambia opened the scoring the second half. Fashion Sakala is an easy name to remember once you have a reason to know it - and he announced his arrival at the U-20 World Cup with a performance that should put him on many watch-lists for the rest of the tournament. He had a part in both goals: a memorably tricksy contribution to Edward Chilufya's 51st-minute opener, and he scored the second himself in the 76th minute.
Zambia's counter-attacking game-plan offers an opponent many chances, and Portugal will reason it could have had at least a share of the points if its finishing had been better on the day. Many teams aren't at their best for their first game of a tournament, and Portugal will at least be pleased that it did eventually find the net - albeit in stoppage time, when it was too late. The Zambians had been looking increasingly vulnerable by the time Helder scored for Portugal in the 91st minute, but the goal seemed to jolt the Junior Chipolopolo awake - they took the ball down the pitch and out of danger for the rest of stoppage time.
One question about this World Cup field was how Zambia would look without the home crowd that cheered it on to victory at the AFCON U-20 tournament. On this evidence, the answer is that absent a stadium full of its own fans, what's left of the Zambian team is an organized and disciplined unit that knows it has the attacking players to trouble any defense and does its best to get the ball forward to them quickly.
This result settles the question of the Group C favorite: consider it a surprise if Zambia doesn't win the group.
Iran 1-0 Costa Rica
Costa Rica didn't register a single shot on target, which is a reliable way to lose games. But Iran couldn't find a way past Los Ticos 'keeper Erick Pineda and it seemed this match would yield the first 0-0 draw of the tournament. But Mehdi Mehdikhani scrapped that idea with a goal in the 81st minute.
Neither of these teams have particularly strong reputations coming out of qualifying. Iran was a semifinalist at the AFC U-19 Championship and Costa Rica only made it out of CONCACAF qualifying on goal difference. This was the match that seemed most winnable for either of them, and it provided further evidence to support the idea they might struggle against heavier-weight sides in this group - and beyond, if they get that far.
- Zambia vs Iran - 4:00 am, Eastern; Wednesday, May 24
- Costa Rica vs Portugal - 7:00 am, Eastern; Wednesday, May 24