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Aug 16, 2007

Lulinha-led Brazil the U-17 favorites

In Part 2 of the U-17 World Cup preview, here's a look at some of the teams and themes that will provide talking points in the tournament.

Main contenders

1. Brazil

Despite the unpredictable nature of U-17 international soccer, Brazil has proved itself to be the dominant force at this level. Since 1997, Brazil has reached four out of five finals, and won the tournament three times (1997, '99 and 2003).

Brazil's performance in the South American Championships in March suggest the Samba Boys are again the main contenders. In Lulinha they possess one of the most exciting young talents in soccer. Comparisons with the likes of Ronaldinho are a little premature, but his goal-scoring feats in qualification suggest he could light up the tournament.

Aside from Lulinha, Brazil has flair across the field. Fabio Silva ranks second in the goal-scoring charts with seven during qualifying and Alex can seemingly open up defenses at will at times. Identical twins Rafael and Fabio, signed with Manchester United, are showing flashes akin to Roberto Carlos and Cafu in their prime.

2. Spain

Europe's reigning U-17 champions present the strongest challenge to Brazil's hegemony. Offensively they possess firepower equal to any of the leading teams, and in Fran Merida, Spain has a midfield playmaker in the mold of 2003 Golden Ball and Shoe winner Cesc Fabregas.

While Merida orchestrates the midfield, Iago Falque and Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic can be devastating in front of goal. Krkic's prowess is already apparent, but if he is shut down, Falque is just as adept at providing goals.

The strength of Spain's formation is through the middle, especially on defense, where captain Ignacio Camacho provides leadership and stability.

3. England

Finalists in the U-17 European Championship, England can consider itself unfortunate not to have overcome Spain in Belgium. England's appearance in the final reflects the depths of its squad, as the team suffered injuries to key personnel along the way.

England has within its ranks a number of future Premiership stars. Victor Moses has a natural eye for the goal underpinned by power and speed, and with Michael Woods controlling the midfield, England could go all the way.

4. USA

The U.S. qualified comfortably from its CONCACAF group to reach Korea. Head coach John Hackworth has been keen to see how far his talented side can go, playing all the major powers in the lead-up to the tournament.

The U.S. has shown itself to be as talented as the other major powers, but tends to suffer from lapses in concentration. At times, the U.S. is capable of overrunning teams with an attacking style of soccer, which is distinctly its own brand.

In goal, Zac MacMath presents a huge obstacle for the opposition, and in Dan Wenzel the U.S. has a genuine world-class midfielder. Up front, Ellis McLoughlin and Alex Nimo will prove a handful.

Story lines to follow

1. Can the U.S be a major force at an international tournament?

The answer this time around is a resounding yes. At the U-17 level, the U.S. has a team that is technically good, and tactically savvy. However, too often the U.S. fails to kill off teams, and at this level, it can be catastrophic. However, performances against Brazil and Germany in the past year suggest it is simply an attitude adjustment, hence the U.S. will pose a serious threat.

2. Will this be Lulinha's tournament?

Brazil's attacking depth could stall Lulinha's attempt on the Golden Boot. If he does thrive under the expected pressure, as he did in Ecuador in the South American Championships, we could witness the birth of another Brazilian star. Lulinha scored 12 goals in the March qualifying tournament and while the World Cup will provide a sterner test, Lulinha has dealt with every challenge so far with relative ease.

3. Can Krkic lead Spain to victory?

Krkic could outshine Lulinha in Korea. His eye for the goal is remarkable, as is his talent. Krkic scored only two goals in Spain's march to the European Championship but both proved decisive in the semifinal and final. Krkic's ability and sense of timing suggests he could be Spain's talisman in Korea.

Tournament dark horses

As with any major tournament there will always be surprises. Korea will be no different, and if the 2002 World Cup is an indication of how the tournament could play out, expect some major shocks. The Korean climate could also play a role as teams will be playing in the middle of summer, where conditions can be humid and with heavy rainfall.

If Nigeria plays to its capabilities, it can overcome anyone on any given day. The Nigerians have won the tournament twice previously (1985 and '93), and in Ibrahim Rabiu, have a player that can take the side into the later stages. Peru also presents an outside threat to the major challengers, having beaten Brazil in the South American Championships back in March.

Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at andrewrogers@optonline.net.