FIFA U-17 WC: Niger ready for Ghana assault

In a battle of African nations, first-timer Niger takes on two-time U-17 World Cup champion Ghana in a round-of-16 clash on Wednesday.

Niger goalkeeper Khaled Lawali will play a key role between the posts during their clash against Ghana on Wednesday.   -  AFP

New-entrant Niger qualified for the pre-quarterfinals by scoring only one goal from three league games, while conceding six along the way to Spain and Brazil.

Deficiencies in the back-line were exposed by these two attack-minded rivals, four goals out of six conceded were leaked due a porous defence and a lack of proper man-marking.

“Every team coming to the World Cup wants to win, we think the same way,” said Niger coach Ismaila Tiemoko, in a booming voice.

Niger's opponent, Ghana, is well-equipped with forwards and offensive mid-fielders to punish overworked defenders, like India realised to its dismay, but a local rivalry surfaces when two African nations meet on a FIFA stage at D. Y. Patil stadium.

Niger playing beyond capabilities cannot be ruled out, like at Gabon during the African U-17 Championships. The teams were locked goalless at full-time before the two-time U-17 World Cup champion Ghana won in the resulting penalty shoot-out.

Tiemoko explained: “We lost two friendlies against Ghana before the African Cup. The experience helped us to hold them to a 0-0 in the tournament and now when the two teams meet, we hope the result will be a victory. It will be tough game, mental rather than technical ability will decide.”

Familiar with Ghana’s game and reputation, there is no better stage for Niger's players than a FIFA competition pre-quarterfinal to showcase their individual brilliance.

Niger defeated Nigeria over two legs in the African U-17 qualifying round, survived here in India to go through among third-placed sides, so the side has little to lose taking on another powerful opponent.

Defender Rachid Soumana, for example, contracted with Ghana club Tudu Mighty Jets FC, is one to watch out for. He carries confidence from the African U-17 qualifiers, where he played five matches.

Niger's first-choice goalkeeper, Khaled Lawali (Niger club Sahel SC) has blocked shots fired at him by Spanish and Brazilian strikers, so building on reputation gained by defying Ghana is a massive incentive for him and others.

 

--Expectations are huge, says Ghana coach--

Nicknamed the ‘Black Starlets’, Ghana U-17 carried a nation hopes on young shoulders, like the United States, at the U-17 World Cup 2017. Both nations are experiencing a footballing low after the seniors missed qualification for FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia, leaving federations looking at U-17 players to lay building blocks for the future.

Topping the Group A is of little value, as third-placed US showed against Group B topper Paraguay to book a quarterfinal berth. “Winning all matches does not mean you under-rate any team,” quipped coach Samuel Fabin.

Ghana has largely been an untested side in the WC so far and the knockouts will determine the brilliant or brittle quality in the squad.

Three-time FIFA World Cupper Ghana (2006, 2010 and 2014), the African nation is more successful at the U-17 category with two titles in eight appearances and football prodigies graduating to world stage. The gloss of earlier achievement have no relation to current form.

Fabin stressed on the confidence seen in Niger after the African U-17 Championships. “We played in Africa and won on penalties. They have the belief that they can overcome us. We know each other so well, playing is tricky.” 

Asked about pressure from expectations in Ghana, he said: “Expectations are huge. Any tournament we enter, fans expect us to win regardless of the position we are in. We are managing it here and trying our best.”

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