Spain coach: 'We need to improve in defence the most'
If France can avoid a defeat at the hands of Honduras at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Guwahati on October 14, then one of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup round of 16 games will see the French meeting European champions Spain, in a replay of a European quarter-final played earlier this year in Croatia.
Spain confirmed their place for the clash by sealing second place in Group D with a 2-0 win over North Korea in Kochi on Friday evening, and are slated to meet the winners of Group E in the next round. France, on six points from two games, also have the best goal difference among the four teams in their group, following a 7-1 win over New Caledonia and 2-1 against Japan.
"We know there's a chance of playing France, but we must show the due respect to all the other teams in their group. France is much improved from when we played them in Europe," said Spain coach Santiago Denia. Spain had previously registered a 3-1 win over the French in May, where eventual tournament top-scorer Amine Gouiri -- whose four goals are also the highest of any player at this World Cup thus far -- gave France the lead. Spain then hit back with goals from the Barcelona trio of right-back Mateu Morey, centre-forward Abel Ruiz and winger Sergio Gomez.
All three started against North Korea as well, but the goals on the night came from the Real Madrid duo of midfielders Mohamed Moukhliss and Cesar Gelabert, operating as a false 9 just behind his captain Ruiz.
The North Koreans were set up by their coach Kim Yong Su to hold out the Spanish attack, but those plans were laid to waste with the opening goal taking all of four minutes.
"The match was as difficult as we expected. We prepared for one kind of match, but the players showed the maturity to understand what was required to cope with the changes," said Denia. "I wouldn't call it a perfect win. We wanted three points and we got three points, but we need to improve."
Gelabert, one of five Real Madrid players in the Spain team, said that playing alongside players from other clubs, four of whom are from arch-rivals Barcelona, has not been a problem because of their common style of play under Denia.
"It has been three years that the same group has played together. The team has had a good ambience and we have gelled well," he said, before saying the opposition in their round of 16 didn't matter to the team. "We have already won against France at the European Championships and we can do it again."
Denia was a bit more pragmatic, especially about how they have done better since losing 2-1 to Brazil on October 7, but cannot let their guard down in any of the knockout games.
"We can improve in moving the ball around and playing together as a team. If there's one area we have to improve the most, it is defence. That is where we will be tested most in the matches to come."