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The reigning African Youth champions required 135 minutes of stumbling on the ground to gain momentum, but the Flying Eagles of Nigeria finally spread their wings and took off the ground as they romped to a 4-0 annihilation of Korea DPR at the Stadium Taranaki, New Plymouth in the ongoing Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand. The score line does not fully tell the complete story as the Eagles could not break down the resolute Korean side in the first 45 minutes of the encounter with the best chance of the half coming from a 25-yard shot from captain Musa Muhammed which hit the post.
The coach Manu Garba made four changes from the side that started in the 4-2 opening loss to Brazil, the change includes star player, Manchester City starlet, Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as Musa Yahaya and Granada’s Success Isaac. However, despite repeated public calls from fans for the team’s goalkeeper Joshua Enaholo to be axed after his atrocious performance against Brazil, he was retained between the sticks.
The changes appeared to have helped the team transit better from defense to attack as they peppered the Korean defensive line with attacking aggression. The Koreans were blunt on the offensive as they spent much of the first half camped in their own half of the field, their goalkeeper Cha Jong Hun had to come to the team’s rescue on more than one occasion.
However, Jong Hun undid most of his good work in the first half by misjudging a cross into the box and flapped at it, leading to Saviour Godwin heading into the open goal. Godwin soon fired in another goal to put the Flying Eagles comfortably ahead as they were rarely troubled by the Asian team. The two goals appeared to dampen the little spirit left in the Koreans as Enyimba’s Kingsley Sokari and substitute Success Isaac put a gloss on the victory to make it emphatic and boost the Eagles chances of qualification for the Round of 16 with just a match left in the group stages.
This result almost definitely means the Koreans are out of the 20th edition of the age-grade competition – formerly referred to as the FIFA World Youth Championship until 2005 – as they were put to the sword 5-1 against South American side Hungary in their opening fixture. What this result means for the Eagles is a direct path to the next round of the competition as long as they beat Hungary in the last group fixture as the South Americans lost to continenetal neighbours Brazil 2-1 after they scored first. The result puts Brazil into the next round of the competition as Nigeria and Hungary, both on three points, will battle it out for second place. Hungary has the advantage as they have a superior goal difference and will qualify with a draw, which means the onus is on the Eagles to fight for a win. However, depending on results from other groups, the Flying Eagles can also qualify with a draw as one of the four best third-placed teams that will qualify from the group stages to complete the number of teams in the Round of 16.
This is a precarious position for the Nigerian team to be in. It is also an all too familiar sight for Nigerian football fans who have had to hold their collective breath for their national teams across all levels leave qualifications from group stages too late for comfort in recent tournaments. A defeat would almost certainly rule them out of the running while a draw would still have them looking over their shoulders at other teams. Only a win would do for the Eagles, but they will not find this easy to come by against a highly-spirited Hungarian side who were tough nuts for the Brazilians to crack as they had to come back from a goal down to overpower them.
Going into the competition as African champions – a competition they have won a record seven times – the Flying Eagles were touted as tournament favourites due to having a talented bunch of players that include star players Kelechi Iheanacho and captain Musa Muhammed, who was the top scorer of the African tournament. Iheanacho has not hit the ground running yet, but less revered players like Akinjide Idowu, who brought much needed control to the midfield against Korea – something that was sorely missing against Brazil – and Awoniyi also impressed as he assisted Godwin’s second goal that put the team at ease.
The Flying Eagles will have to improve their game to beat Hungary and will have to be especially cautious of dangerman, Bence Mervo who has scored 4 goals (currently the highest in the competition), including a sublime hat-trick against Korea DPR in the opening game. Bernd Storck’s side stand between Nigeria and the second round, and a bid to win the world championship for the first time at this level. Coach Garba has his job cut out for him as he has to maintain a balance between the wealth of attacking options at his disposal and the defensive aspect of the team as they will equally be vital in overcoming very formidable opponents in Hungary.
Nigerian football lovers will watch with bated breaths as the Flying Eagles battle Hungary on Sunday to decide who gets the automatic second qualification spot and pray that it does not end in disappointment as has been experienced before. The Flying Eagles have certainly taken off the ground and flown into the sky; it remains to be seen whether it will be high enough.
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