SANDRA AIGNER / AIPS* in FUJAIRAH: Croatia, one of the original favourites to win the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 found themselves teetering on the brink of a first-round exit after losing their last Group C match against Uzbekistan by 2-1.
For all those teams hoping to squeeze through among the four best third-placed teams everything now depends on the outcomes of Friday’s climactic matches in Groups E and F.
After a balanced opening 10 minutes the Asian champion were gifted the lead in the 14th minute by an own goal from Duje Caleta-Car. The goal was the result of poor communication between goalkeeper Marko Maric and the covering central defender who deflected a right-wing free kick up into the roof of the net.
Uzbekistan sought to press home their advantage over the young Croats. But it did not bring them a second goal.
Instead, in the 28th minute, supporters at the Fujairah Stadium finally caught a glimpse of the potential of Alen Halilovic, one of the most vaunted young talents in Europe .
The Dinamo Zagreb player seized control just outside the penalty and outpaced two defenders as he darted to the right before screwing his shot back inside the foot of the far post with his ‘wrong’ right foot. It was his first goal in the tournament.
Unfortunately the Croat captain missed most of the second half because of injury. He said later: “Finally, I scored with my right foot but then I stepped badly and had to ask the coach to be substituted.”
Even in his absence Croatia continued to take the fight to Uzbekistan but failed to create the necessary openings and paid the penalty in the 79th minute.
The ball ricocheted around the edge of the Croat before Jamshid Boltaboev stepped to his right and thumped a powerful shot just inside keeper Maric’s left-hand post.
Uzbekistan may be an unknown force beyond central Asia but their success both regionally and in the UAE over the past week has not come as a surprise to the players.
Matchwinner Boltaboev said: “This was predictable for us. We have not come here just to play, we came here to win.”
In the second round Uzbekistan will play Honduras in the one known tie of the knockout stage.
Boltaboev said: “I have seen some of their games. They are very good physically and very good with their passes and tactics. But we came came here to challenge every team.
“At the least I hope we can reach the semi-finals but the main aim is to be champions.”
The consolation for Croatia coach Ivan Gudelj was that he judged this his team’s best performance of the tournament even though the result was fair.
He said: “They deserved it to win. But that was our best game. We had more chances but we did not use them. Today we had everything in our own hands and we were supposed to win . . .”
* AIPS, the international sports journalists association, is running a Young Reporters course at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 with the support of the local organising committee and FIFA
# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #