Australia’s quest for U17 World Cup glory has ended after head coach Trevor Morgan’s young side suffered a 4-0 defeat at the hands of European powers France on Thursday morning.
Despite the Joeys coming into the fixture off the wave of momentum that was their first-ever World Cup finals win over Nigeria days prior, it was France’s Nathanaël Mbuku that drew the contest’s first blood in just the sixth minute of play.
The Stade de Reims attacker found himself in perfect position to give his side the lead when he turned in a close-range header created when combination play down the right flank sprung Brandon Soppy into space and allowed him to lay in a cutback that bobbled off the leg of Aussie keeper Adam Pavlesic and onto the head of Mbuku.
After bunkering down and absorbing a follow-up onslaught from the French, the Joeys were able to begin to summon their own modicum of resistance and were increasingly looking capable of stealing an equaliser as the first half wound down.
Alas, disaster struck for Australia in the 55th minute when a sliding challenge from Anton Milinaric came under the cold, unfeeling eye of the VAR. Though initially adjudged a yellow card on the field, a review from the bunker showed the true, dangerous nature of the challenge and earned the Sydney FC defender his marching orders.
The dagger was then delivered to Australian hopes in in in the 74th minute and twisted deeper in the 83rd when Mbuku added his second and third goals of the game from two assists by Adil Aouchiche.
The final blow was then delivered with just minutes remaining when Enzo Millot drilled home an effort from range to make it four in a result that, perhaps, represented an accurate summation of the gap between the two sides.
Two more late goals were thankfully chalked off for offside to spare the Joeys blushes any further.
France now move onto a quarterfinal meeting with fellow European giants Spain whilst Australia head home – the players of his squad now looking ahead to careers as Young Socceroos, and Morgan getting set to steer the next generation of Joeys.
With Les Blues having gone undefeated in group play in Brazil, the form guide already predicted the tough task in hand for Australia coming into Thursday’s contest.
Nonetheless, as the two sides stepped out onto the surface of Goiânia’s Estádio da Serrinha on Thursday morning, another challenge facing the Joeys became readily apparent: the difference in development in the bodies of the two sides.
One of the realities faced at a junior level of football, regardless of where one plays around the world, is that some players will begin to transform from boy to man at a sooner stage than others. Though unfortunate for players that haven’t quite undergone it or are in the process of doing so, it in an of itself a fact of life for junior coaches; simply another factor to be taken into account.
For French head coach Jean-Claude Giuntini, the larger bodies of his young group simply served to supplement a highly-skilled, well-drilled and confident group of players who seized the initiative right from the off
The defensive-left flank of the Australian’s was, in particular, serving as a happy hunting ground for the French in the opening stages of the contest; Rennes’ Soppy and Marseilles’ Isaac Lihadji making life incredibly difficult for Australian left-back Izaack Powell.
In the middle of the park, highly rated PSG attacking midfielder Aouchiche functioned as attacking metronome for his side; making moves both with and without the ball to dictate tempo, open up space for his teammates and create goal-scoring opportunities.
Nonetheless, despite their control of the early stages of the contest, ability to get balls down the flanks and ability to win set pieces near the penalty area – 189cm Inter midfielder Lucien Agoumé proving particularly threatening when getting on the end of balls into the area – the French found themselves unable to add to their early lead in the first half.
Cameron Peupion had Australia’s first shot in anger in the 13th minute of play when he stole the ball off Soppy and forced a save from Les Bluets keeper Melvin Zinga and Ali Auglah – making his starting debut in the wake of Tristan Hammond’s suspension – came within inches of making it 1-1 when he let loose with a side-footed long-range effort that threatened to dip under the crossbar before Zinga pawed it away.
Things did go from bad to worse for Australia with Milinaric’s red card, but a lifeline was granted to the Australians in the 64th minute when a penalty won when by Soppy off the newly introduced Trent Ostler appeared set to ice the game, only to waved away by VAR after a handball was found in the build-up.
But, with a man-down already, Mbuku’s second seemed to put the writing on the wall for the Joeys; a lesson mercifully hammered home by France’s multiple late goals and several other disallowed ones.