Dreams of recovering the past glories of yesteryear were shattered by Mali on Tuesday evening as Argentina under-20s crashed out of the World Cup in the round of sixteen on penalties.
A stoppage time equaliser in extra-time denied La Albiceleste when it looked as though Ezequiel Barca’s deflected effort would be sending Argentina through to meet Italy in the quarter finals. Fernando Batista and his team will certainly look back ruefully on a missed opportunity that saw Mali come from behind twice to snatch a draw and ultimately seal victory with a perfect performance from the penalty spot.
An even first half in which both sides had gone close was broken just minutes after the restart when Adolfo Gaich, who had come closest for Argentina in the opening 45 minutes, capitalised on some poor defending to fire past Youssouf Koita.
Mali reacted well and after striking the woodwork for the second time in the game eventually forced an equaliser, Abdoulaye Diaby heading in at a corner in the 67th minute.
Neither side could find a second but it took only 30 seconds of extra-time for Argentina to retake the lead. Agustín Urzi sliding in Francisco Ortega on the overlap and the Vélez full-back’s cross finding the influential Ezequiel Barco, whose powerful shot deflected off Diaby and into the net.
It appeared to be enough for Argentina as the clock ticked into added time at the end of an 120 minutes that Fernando Batista’s side had shaded. However, switching off at a Mali free-kick under the assumption that a lofted set-piece would be hung up into the penalty area allowed Sekou Koita to slip Boubacar Konte unmarked and the substitute ran clear to rifle past Roffo.
An agonising equaliser forced the match into a penalty shootout and Ezequiel Barca’s late replacement, when Argentina were seemingly on the verge of progressing, Tomás Chancalay saw his effort saved by Youssouf Koita.
La Albiceleste were left praying for a Malian error or a Manuel Roffo save and it never came as Sambou Sissoko rolled in the decisive fifth and final penalty.
Despite another early exit for Argentina there were plenty of positives to take away from this World Cup and several players who look to have what it takes to one day contribute to the senior side but it was a missed opportunity to challenge in Poland and understandably left the young squad heartbroken.