Croatia under-17 1-1 Belgium under-17 (3-5 on penalties): Azzazoui bright as Croats defeated on pens

A place in the semi-finals of the under-17 tournament was up for grabs, as Croatia and Belgium went head-to-head on Friday afternoon. Read below for the match report, as Mosope analyses the action from the youth quarter-final in Bulgaria.

Croatia under-17 1-1 Belgium under-17 (3-5 on penalties): Azzazoui bright as Croats defeated on pens
Image credit: UEFA
Croatia under-17
1 1
Belgium under-17
Croatia under-17: Šemper, Hudecek, Sosa, Kalaica, Soldo, Brekalo, Djurasek(Halilovic, min.80+3), Majic(Babic, min.65), Moro, Lovren and Gjira(Zenko, min.70).
Belgium under-17: Teunckens, Delorge(Caignau, min.70), Seigers, Faes, Janssens, Thuys, Azzaoui, Ademoglu, Vaerenbergh, Daneels and Rigo(Verreth, min.77).
SCORE: 1-0, min.34, Majic 1-1, min.53, Azzaoui
REFEREE: Marius Avram (ROU) Booked - Majic, min.60

Croatia's youth side came into the quarter-final fixture having won Group A with seven points from a possible nine, boasting a six-game run without conceding a goal in the build-up to the intriguing tie. Belgium meanwhile, were the dark horses to go all the way in the tournament beforehand, having finished runners-up in Group B, with Germany the only team to beat the youngsters in their group. 

The winner of this fixture would seal their place in the semi-finals at the start of next week, as well as cementing their World Cup qualification place for the tournament in a few months' time. It was clear to see that a lot was at stake, and neither side wanted to be the one to lose. 

The early going of the match was not action-packed full of goal-scoring chances for either team, but both were eager to start on the front foot and dominate possession. Both looked threatening on the counter, with Belgium starting to push the Croatians back into their own half after ten minutes, despite a disclipined back line and organised shape about their approach play.

Croatian goalkeeper Adrian Šemper scrambled to a low fizzing ball driven towards the six-yard box, and he fumbled it away partially to safety before his centre-backs cleared the danger, as the Belgians were lurking behind ready to pounce. Josip Brekalo had a fierce effort flashed wide of the crossbar after twenty minutes, as Dario Basic's youngsters looked to open the scoring and punish their opponents on the attack with a quick tempo to their attacking side of proceedings. 

Marko Gijra showed flashes of individual brilliance as Croatia continued in search of the opener, having beaten two Belgian defenders with a body feint followed by a neat skill, he weaved his way towards the edge of the box before unselfishly looking up and passing the ball to a team-mate. Unfortunately enough for him, his team-mate was unable to whip in a cross of any significant note as his delivery was blocked, out for a throw-in. 

Tottenham's young attacking talent Ismail Azzazoui was a constant nuisance to the Croatian backline, especially in the second-half, but in the first period, he was more unselfish as he always looked to play a team-mate through. Disappointingly given his talent, the 16-year-old's final ball was not good enough to warrant a clear goal-scoring chance in the opening exchanges; instead feeding off the odd loose ball and playing out from the back. 

The match's opening goal game after a touch of magic by Karlo Majic, whose backheel flicked the ball into the bottom corner of the net after the Belgian backline struggled to clear the danger quickly enough from a corner-kick. It was a deserving lead for the Croats, who walked into the half-time interval with a slender one-nil scoreline in their favour despite the young Red Devil's late pressure on their goal.

No substitutions were made by either side as the second-half got underway, with Belgium looking to get straight into things. It was almost two-nil to the Croatians, but for a vital stop at the near post of Belgian 'keeper Jens Teunckens after Davor Lovren showed great skill and agility to dodge two challenges with relative ease near the byline whilst keeping the ball in play, before nutmegging a marker and slotting the ball towards the near post. After some sustained pressure though, Belgium levelled to devastating effect. A cruel, unfortunate defensive mistake by centre-back Branimir Kalaica deflected the ball behind him into the path of Azzazoui, who pounced quickly, took a touch to get the ball out into space before looking up and cheekily dinking his effort over Šemper into the bottom corner of the net - for his third goal of the tournament. 

The match was more in Belgium's favour after they equalised, as Azzazoui looked bright in his best spell of the game, orchestrating counter attacks with frightening pace and quick dribbling to skip past his marker as he galloped towards goal. Majic was the first and only player to go into the referee's book with a yellow card for a late sliding challenge on Rubin Seigers as he was pursuing the defender to try and win possession in a dangerous area to try and score from. Azzazoui continued to create chances for his team-mates at will, but this time used a piece of creative genius to curl a long ball over the top of the Croatian backline and set a team-mate up with a golden opportunity to strike, which was stopped by Šemper, who was alert throughout to keep his side in the match at one-all.

Majic was brought off in place of Matko Babic after suffering an injury in midfield, and was brought off to save him from any further aggravation from his knock. 

Painful one: Majic grimaces as he is being treated on the touchline by the Croatian physio before coming off the pitch

Šemper made a fantastic diving save to deny Dante Rigo from long range, as the creative forward unleashed a swerving effort from 25 yards out, which looked destined for the top corner before the Croatian made an acrobatic parry over the bar and out for a corner-kick. Gijra was taken off in place of Adrian Zenko with ten minutes to play, with Kino Delorge being replaced by Dries Caignau as the former had a serious bout of cramp and was not risked with the game nicely poised at one-a-piece. 

A few alterations were made with the clock ticking ever closer to the eighty minute mark, and in the end, the referee blew his whistle, signalling that the game would go to penalties. Belgium started proceedings; with Cristophe Janssens curling a well-placed penalty into the bottom corner of the net, Šamper helpless to save it. The advantage was soon with the young Red Devils, as Croatia's captain Nikola Moro had his spot-kick saved with a good diving stop by Teunckens. 

Dennis van Vaerenbergh made it two-nil to the Belgians with a calmly slotted effort, curled into the back of the net in some style after he waited for the goalkeeper to commit to diving one way, before placing it in the opposite direction. Brekalo slammed his penalty low and hard into the bottom corner of the net, making it two-one and giving Croatia an outlet of hope to reach out to. Lennerd Daneels made it all but over for the Croats though, as he placed the ball on the spot before taking no time at all to smash home, sending the 'keeper the wrong way in the process. Lovren slotted his penalty strike low into the opposite corner to the goalkeeper, but did not celebrate, as he knew they needed a miracle to get themselves back in the shoot-out. 

That miracle did not come, as Alper Ademoglu narrowly saw his well-placed effort ripple into the side corner of the net, flashing just narrowly into the netting. Then, Borna Sosa did almost the exact same thing. His penalty looked to swerve just wide of the mark, but curled into the goalmouth, prompting the defender to say his prayers of thanks, as he probably thought he'd missed. Azzazoui, the top scorer, had the ultimate responsibility of pushing his side into the competition's semi-finals, and he did just that, with the pressure on his shoulders, curling his spot-kick cooly past the 'keeper into the back of the net with finesse. 

Croatia were in absolute heartbreak, but their under-17 European championships campaign is not over just yet, as they still have the play-off to play, to decipher whether they'll secure a place in October's FIFA under-17 World Cup competition. Belgium go marching on to the semi-finals, to be played at the start of next week. With an in-form Azzazoui in their ranks, they look slick.