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The Flying Eagles of Nigeria finally came into their element and put on a wonderful performance for their fans as they made light work of their Hungarian opponents, beating them 2-0 to advance to the Round of 16 of the ongoing FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
The match – a decider of who gets the second automatic qualification spot in the group – was one that Nigerian fans anxiously awaited, as defeat would send them packing their bags early from a tournament which they had been backed as favourites in pre-tournament predictions. The opening minutes of the match certainly did nothing to ease their tensions as the Hungarian side, spearheaded in attack by prolific Bence Merve, piled early pressure on the Nigerian defensive line without any clear cut chances. This turned out to be a false dawn for the Hungarians, as the Eagles soon got a handle on the match and held on to the ball for long periods, running rings around the Hungarians. They soon reaped the rewards for their efforts as Taiwo Awoniyi opened the scoring in the 33rd minute. Saviour Godwin went on a solo run down the flank and crossed into the box for Awoniyi to open his goalscoring account in the biennialcompetition as he finished easily, slotting the ball past Hungarian keeper, Gyorgy Szekely at the near post.
By the time the first half drew to a close, the Eagles had created ten chances to Hungary’s measly two. However, they came out firing in the second half, and they almost grabbed an equalizer when Mario Nemeth hit the bar with a shot in the 48th minute. This did not trouble the Flying Eagles too much as Awoniyi pounced on a defensive mix up in the Hungarian half, expertly dribbled past a defender to steal into the box, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted into an empty net to give the reigning champions a comfortable lead and ultimately, a safe passage into the Round of 16 to face reigning European champions, Germany. Awoniyi had a glorious chance to complete an incredible hat trick in the 59th minute, but he shot wide before he was substituted for Moses Simon in the 74th minute. Despite the loss, Hungary still qualifies for the next round as one of the four best third-placed teams and they will face European side Serbia.
Speaking to the media after the game, Coach Manu Garba said “It was a very good match for us. We wanted to score more, but still I’m happy with the 2-0 result. The Hungarians play more from the wings but we were able to control the game and the outcome.”
The Flying Eagles should be proud of their qualification as they have rallied back and gradually picked up form after losing 2-4 to Brazil in the opening game. Massive improvements in their game since that loss has been impressive as former Sunshine Stars manager and current assistant manager of the national Olympic team , Fatai Amoo put it, “The Flying Eagles played very well and have shown great improvement after 2-4 defeat to Brazil in the first game of the championship. I think they have done very well so far in the tournament but must work on the defence now they are playing Germany.”
The Eagles will do well to heed to his words of caution as they must now concentrate on their knockout fixture and improve their game even better as they face tougher opposition in Germany who scored 16 goals on their way to conquering Group F with nine points. Quizzed on his preparations for the match, Garba said, “Our next game is against Germany but we are ready for any team, because if we want to be champions, we have to be ready for them.”
The high spirits of the team is even more remarkable seeing as star man Kelechi Iheanacho had minimal impact on it. The Manchester City starlet was again benched alongside Musa Yahaya and Success Isaac and only replaced Sokari in the 82nd minute, as the coach kept faith with the same starting eleven that thrashed Korea DPR 4-0 on Thursday.
Fatai Amoo even had a thing or two to say about it, “Iheanacho and Success were not key to the side’s qualification as well as success at the African Youth Championship in Senegal. That’s what makes them look like outsiders to the team but that is not to say they are not good. They are really good players. I think the present crop of Flying Eagles is a team everybody plays not a one man team so the coach’s match plan must be respected in that regard.”
It will be interesting to see if the coach will unleash him against Germany, and whether he will finally set the competition alight.
History was also made at the tournament, as Nigeria’s qualification alongside Mali, Senegal and Ghana represents the first time four African teams have progressed to the knock out stages of the competition. The only African team to have won it is Ghana and they will face off against Mali, who finished second in Group D. Both teams last met in the third place playoff of the 2015 African Youth Championship, with Ghana winning the bronze medal in a 1-0 triumph.Hosts and runner-ups of the African Youth Championship Senegal finished as one of the four best third-placed teams in the group stages with four points in Group C and will face South American side Uruguay. Nigeria will face Germany on Thursday at the Christchurch stadium.
It remains to be seen just how high the Eagles can fly in New Zealand, but one thing is for certain: they will not give up their wings without a fight.