The temperature is sure to rise in New Zealand on Wednesday as the Round of 16 gets under way at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, with the first eight teams knowing that even the slightest mistake could leave them packing their bags for home.
The opening instalment of games features a pair of continental jousts as Serbia take on Hungary and Mali get to grips with Ghana. A little later in the day, Colombia will tackle USA in what ought to be a very open encounter, while Ukraine and Senegal will bring their contrasting styles to bear in Auckland.* *Match of the day
Serbia-Hungary, Dunedin, 10 June 2015, 16.00 (local time)
Having recorded two wins and a loss in the group stage, Serbia will go into their all-European tie in the south of New Zealand hopeful of prevailing against opponents who posted the inverse record. They will nonetheless be wary of a Hungary team boasting similar qualities to their own, with the neighbouring nations both playing a pleasing style of expansive and attacking football with no obvious flaws.
Veljko Paunovic's charges undoubtedly have momentum on their side, however, after recovering from their opening 1-0 loss to Uruguay to claim consecutive wins – in contrast to Hungary, who swept aside Korea DPR 5-1 before promptly being beaten twice. That said, those results raise the possibility that over-confidence, or lost confidence, could be among the keys to this game, along with the form of influential Hungarian duo Zsolt Kalmar and Bence Mervo, and Serbian pair Andrija Zivkovic and Nemanja Maksimovic.
The other matches
While those European rivals tussle for a quarter-final spot, Ghana and Mali will be locking horns in an all-African affair in Wellington – a rematch of their play-off for third place at the 2015 CAF African U-20 Championship, which Ghana won 3-1. Neither goalkeeper Djigui Diarra nor star midfielder Adama Traore featured in that game for Mali, however, and given how both have performed in New Zealand, *Les Aiglons *will be gunning for a different outcome.
Fans across the Atlantic will be glued to the second match in Wellington, meanwhile, as Colombia test their mettle against USA. *Los Cafeteros *have had a low-key tournament thus far, although there is no doubting their attacking potential with the likes of Steven Lucumi in their ranks. The Stars and Stripes have been similarly enigmatic and blew hot and cold during the group stage, but, in Emerson Hyndman and Rubin Rubio, they have players capable of making the difference at any moment.
Lastly, Ukraine will start as favourites on paper against Senegal given their clear strength at both ends of the pitch. Yet to concede, they possess the meanest defence in the competition as well as the top scorer in five-goal Viktor Kovalenko, but they will need to beware Senegal's ability to raise their game in knockout contests. *Les Lionceaux *did exactly that at the most recent African U-20 Championship, eventually taking themselves all the way to the final.
Player to watch
Kovalenko has been turning heads since the tournament began, and rightly so, but praise is no less due to his team-mateBohdan Sarnavskyi. Impeccable between the posts, the Ukraine goalkeeper has yet to fish the ball out of his net at this U-20 World Cup and will be looking to extend his run against Senegal, the least prolific of the last-16 contenders with just three goals under their belts. As he explained to FIFA.com: "In Ukraine, we have a saying: 'What soldier does not dream of becoming a general?' That's true for us as well. We didn't come to here to make up the numbers."
The stat 6 – The Round of 16 contains representatives from all six confederations for only the fourth time in U-20 World Cup history, after the 1997, 2001 and 2003 editions also featured a clean sweep at this stage. Meanwhile, just three of South America's four contenders have survived this time around, CONMEBOL having sent its full complement through to the knockout phase in each of the last eight final tournaments.
An exciting round of 16 game on Wednesday against #Ghana 100% Africa Thanks for your support #GHAMLI #U20WC #AllezMali –Adama Traore, Mali attacking midfielder
Round of 16 - 10 June 2015
Ghana-Mali (Wellington, Westpac Stadium, 16.00)
Serbia-Hungary (Dunedin, Forsyth Barr Stadium, 16.00)
USA-Colombia (Wellington, Westpac Stadium, 19.30)
Ukraine-Senegal (Auckland, North Harbour Stadium, 19.30)
(All times local)