Two –time runners –up Nigeria made sure of their place at the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup finals in Poland after a hard –fought 1-0 victory over host nation Niger Republic in one of the final matches of Group A at the 21st Africa U20 Cup of Nations on Friday.
In what was their most important of the championship so far, the seven –time African champions fought hard at the back and stringed passes in midfield, but were let down by a blunt attack. Nazifi Yahaya had opportunity to draw the first blood after only five minutes when he was let through as the ball leaped over the defence, only to hit his effort at a sprawling goalkeeper Khalid Lawali Ibrahim.
Five minutes later, Yahaya had the ball in the net as the Nigerians showed their full intention, but was adjudged offside. In the 18th minute, defender Mike Zaruma snatched the ball in the midfield as the Nigeriens looked to launch an onslaught, and flashed a shot that flew over the bar.
On resumption, both teams continued to press for the opener. Apparently heeding the dressing room words of Coach Ismaila Tiemoko, the Junior Mena showed greater appetite and cohesion, but met a Nigerian defence that had not been breached in the tournament and was determined not to on a day like this one.
Knowing they needed to win to stand any chance of reaching the last four and Poland, Tiemoko’s wards became more desperate as the game wore on, even as Nazifi Yahaya, Alhassan Adamu and Aliyu Ibrahim wasted opportunities.
In the 71st minute, Niger’s Abdoul Kairou Amoustapha should have had the ball in the net but for yeoman’s effort of the Nigerian defence, and only two minutes later, Alhassan Adamu scored the only goal of the match direct from a free –kick to seal Nigeria’s win.
In the event, hosts Niger Republic were eliminated from the tournament, with South Africa defeating Burundi in the other match of Group A to leap to five points and finish second behind seven –pointer Nigeria.
Nigeria and South Africa thus join Senegal as teams heading to Poland this summer, with the other ticket to be determined on Saturday when Ghana and Mali slug it out at the Stade General Seyni Kountche.
The Flying Eagles’ opponents for the semi final will also emerge from the Ghana/Mali encounter.