England began their Under-20 World Cup campaign with a win over Argentina and rounded it off with another victory over South American opposition, edging 1-0 past Venezuela in the final.
England had resolved their knockout matches inside the 90 minutes. Venezuela, meanwhile, needed extra time in all three rounds -- and with the semifinal played just three days before the final, their recovery time had been worryingly short. It proved an important factor in the outcome.
In the first half the Venezuelan side had problems staying compact. It is a risk in the way they play, with two attacking midfielders down the flanks in addition to two strikers -- a formation that requires hard running to stop the team from becoming stretched out. Physically strong and dynamic, England spent much of the first period bursting into the space between the Venezuelan lines. Wuilker Farinez, Venezuela's outstanding goalkeeper, had to be at his lithe and flexible best.
Ronaldo Lucena did come close to putting Venezuela ahead with a well-struck free kick from range that surprised Freddie Woodman in the England goal and swerved against the post. And Adalberto Penaranda curled another free kick narrowly wide. But the first half was an England procession. They took the lead from a quickly taken set piece from Lewis Cook. Striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin managed to force his way past centre-back Nahuel Ferraresi. Farinez produced a reflex save to parry the close-range shot -- and he almost reached the rebound as well. But England were ahead. Could Venezuela do anything about it in the second half?
Soon after the restart they made the obvious change, bringing on diminutive attacking midfielder Yeferson Soteldo. It presented the England defence with a different kind of threat than the thrust of Penaranda and Sergio Cordova down the flanks, and for a few minutes Soteldo induced panic in the opposing defence. He slipped a pass through to Cordova, but Woodman came quickly off his line to block.
England retreated and, with the exception of a superb Josh Onomah shot that came down off the angle, they offered little in the second half, happy to hang on and hope for a counterattack. With the game now taking place in the England half, Venezuela could roll out their attacking options, with Yangel Herrera charging forward from central midfield, and looking dangerous in the air from set pieces, Soteldo adding a subtle touch and Penaranda attempting to force his way through.
Out of the blue, they had a penalty. Penaranda was slipped behind the line to the right, England centre-back Jake Clarke-Salter came across to cover, unwisely went to ground and, after consultation with the video referee, Penaranda had a chance to equalise from 12 yards.
In the semifinal shootout against Uruguay he had struck his penalty low down the middle. He went central once more, this time at mid-height. Woodman dived right, but just managed to thrust a hand back and block the shot. Venezuela had spurned their best opportunity. They kept throwing men forward for the remaining 20 minutes, but England circled the wagons and held on to win the title.
This, as in all age-limit football, is never the be all and end-all. These tournaments are less about title than player development. It will be interesting to follow the careers of the England players, to see how many of them are given a chance with Premier League clubs.
There are fewer doubts about the Venezuelans. There is no question that this generation will be handed huge responsibility as the country seeks to make its senior World Cup debut in 2022 or maybe 2026. Four of the team have already played in the current World Cup qualification campaign, and Farinez, Herrera, Penaranda and Soteldo can expect to be representing their country for many years to come, taking the confidence and experience gained in South Korea over the last few weeks and putting it to long-term use.