France the favourites at Under-20 World Cup, Uruguay to finish second
The 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup is set to kick off in South Korea this weekend, with many of world football's best young talents ready to take on the biggest challenge of their careers so far. Here, we preview the group stage and predict who will advance in the competition.
Group A: South Korea, Guinea, Argentina, England
Argentina will compete strongly even if, two years ago in New Zealand, a highly fancied team fell at the first hurdle. But this does not appear a vintage crop and they only finished fourth in the South American Youth Football Championship earlier this year. Although a mainly domestic-based squad should reach the latter stages, they may find the knockouts tougher going. Racing Club's exciting striker Lautaro Martinez is a big threat, but it could be that a sparky England side boasting considerable top-level experience -- including the likes of Lewis Cook, Josh Onomah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Ademola Lookman -- has better long-term prospects in the competition despite the nation's poor record at U20 World Cups.
The host nation, South Korea, will want to retain an interest in an event whose past eight they have reached twice in the past decade. They are coached by former national team midfielder Shin Tae-Yong and will be able to count on fervent support. They also have two Barcelona youngsters, Lee Seung-woo and Paik Seung-Ho -- the former known as the "Korean Messi" -- in their ranks. Their opening fixture is against a Guinea team that are the group's longest shot; it may be that the pair are effectively playing off to be among the four third-placed finishers that go through.
3. South Korea
Group B: Venezuela, Germany, Vanuatu, Mexico
Germany are ranked among the favourites to win this tournament, although Guido Streichsbier's squad, while full of players registered with Bundesliga clubs, is not especially experienced. They should be pushed hard by Mexico and even Venezuela, who go down as an intriguing shout for a deep run after finishing third in their regional competition. Foremost among the South Americans' threats is Adalberto Penaranda, the exciting forward who is technically a Watford player but has been on loan at Malaga. They promise to be a lively proposition.
At the Confederations Cup in 2013, a tiny Pacific nation, Tahiti, stole hearts in their debut at the top level. Vanuatu could do the same at the U20 World Cup: theirs is the nearest to a fairytale that this year's competition will see, the country of just 286,000 people having finished runners-up in the 2016 Oceania U20 event. They lost 5-0 in the final to New Zealand and will probably take a few more hammerings here, but can take heart from a draw with fellow first-time qualifiers Vietnam earlier this month.
Group C: Zambia, Portugal, Iran, Costa Rica
Portugal are always there or thereabouts at this level, although their last global U20 title came back in 1991. Their squad is primarily made up of players from the Sporting and Benfica "B" sides. Among the names to look out for is Jose Gomes, from the latter, who was top scorer at the UEFA U17 Championship. Gomes and Portugal should have few problems coming through the group although Zambia, who won the U20 African Nations Cup on home turf in March, may challenge them at the top and boast a fine talent of their own in Spartak Moscow forward Junior Sakala.
Take your pick from Iran and Costa Rica for the wooden spoon, although the former look stronger and have their own young star playing in Russia. Reza Shekari's move to FC Rostov was confirmed this month. There are huge hopes for the 18-year-old attacking midfielder's future and Rostov, for whom Sardar Azmoun has been a resounding success, do not have form when signing fine Iranian talent. Shekari could yet help them through the group.
4. Costa Rica
Group D: South Africa, Japan, Italy, Uruguay
This Uruguay side has caused considerable excitement and that was borne out when they won the South American Youth Football Championship this year. Nacional forward Rodrigo Amaral was joint-top scorer in that tournament with five goals and will be dangerous again. He has an eye for the spectacular and will be complemented well by midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur, who will join Juventus this summer. Theirs will be a fascinating battle for first place with Italy, who are coached by former international midfielder Alberigo Evani and compete in this competition for the first time since 2009. Both should qualify for the last 16 comfortably enough.
Japan were winners of the Asian U19 Championship in October and Gamba Osaka wide man Ritsu Doan was named the event's best player. He is back for the U20 World Cup and should help his team finish above South Africa, although the young Springboks can call upon Luther Jordan, the Braga forward who is one of four Portugal-based players in the squad and has already enjoyed a prolific spell with Swedish club GAIS. Real Madrid were linked with his services back then and he has the capacity to spring a surprise.
4. South Africa
Group E: France, Honduras, Vietnam, New Zealand
France could hardly have hoped for a better group and the only concern might be that they are not as battle-hardened as some of their rivals for the trophy when the knockout phase comes around. The UEFA U19 champions are widely tipped to follow up that success with the world title and with good reason: Toulouse defender Issa Diop is among a squad with a generous sprinkling of Ligue 1 experience, with Paris Saint-Germain striker Jean-Kevin Augustin also likely to play a significant role. For a blast from the past, keep an eye out for Marcus Thuram -- the Sochaux forward whose father is a certain Lilian Thuram. France should face a mouthwatering last-16 tie against Italy or Uruguay, but they will take some beating.
Honduras lost narrowly to the United States in the final of the CONCACAF U20 Championship and may push France hardest here. Debutants Vietnam are a relatively unknown quantity after finishing third in the Asian competition, while it is generally hard to gauge the quality of New Zealand, coached here by former Wolves and Watford player Darren Bazeley, due to the paucity of opposition they tend to face in Oceania. Second place is up for grabs, but it would be a surprise if three sides made it through what, bar France, is comfortably the weakest group.
3. New Zealand
Group F: Ecuador, United States, Saudi Arabia, Senegal
This may be the most evenly balanced of the groups, with all of the sides bar perhaps Saudi Arabia looking credible qualifiers. Senegal have a fine record of bringing players through at this age group; they were entertaining fourth-placed finishers in 2015 and have another exciting crop of young players from academies at home and clubs around Europe. Ecuador, runners-up in a South American tournament where they defeated Argentina 3-0 along the way, look a close match for the African side, while it will be fascinating to see how Tab Ramos's U.S fare -- quarterfinalists in 2015. As well as a number of strong MLS talents, they will take Arsenal's Gedion Zelalem and Tottenham's Cameron Carter-Vickers; it is a team with the capacity to cause another surprise or two.
Saudi Arabia qualified from the group stage in 2011, but it is hard to see them repeating that feat now. They did entertain en route to finishing second at the Asian U19 Championship and boasted the competition's joint-top scorers -- both of whom, Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Al Yami, are in the squad this time out.
3. United States
4. Saudi Arabia
Tournament winners: France
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.