FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: Ghana overcome physical battle against Niger in all-African encounter
Ghana, who were the rightful winners of Group A, might have felt the heat in the early stages of the game but prevailed at the right time to set up yet another mouthwatering all-African contest with last edition's runner-up, Mali.
The African teams are blessed with one particular skill set which all other European and Asian counterparts are envious of–the physical strength. One of the reasons why African sides arguably have an upper hand in the world of sports is because they possess so much threat, both at junior and senior levels.
The FIFA U-17 World Cup in India is no different. The young athletes have shown a lot of promise since the start of the tournament. More so, at the all-African Round of 16 clash between two-time champions Ghana and debutants Niger, there were glimpses of both sides' physical style of play everyone talked about before the match.
Often there are games where the fans discuss the could-haves and should-haves while heading out of the stadium, but this particular clash was a case of just pushing and shoving.
Soon after the referee blew his whistle, Ghana launched a flat long ball towards right-winger Ibrahim Sulley. Then in the next minute, captain Eric Aiyah’s Andres Iniesta-like incredible run from the middle had brought fans to the edge of their seats but the 5’7 attacker was floored by Niger’s Farouk Idrissa.
The movement in the middle was bland, almost invisible at the 20th-minute mark. What had happened before that and what was to come next was a test of physical strength. Ghana, who looked less bulky in front of their bulkier Niger counterparts, drilled the ball twice into the net to enter the quarter-finals.
This was not the first time these two teams were involved in a physical duel. Not too long ago, in the much-talked-about semi-final of U-17 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Gabon, both Ghana and Niger plunged into the opposition till the very last kick of the game. Eventually, the Black Starlets came out victorious on penalties.
“During the AFCON, we were not physically prepared and that’s why struggled for 90 minutes. After the tournament, we had the opportunity to work on our physical strength, which I think made the difference tonight,” Ghana coach Samuel Fabian told Firstpost with a broad smile on his face before adding,” We started the training sessions on 18 July because most of the players go to school regularly and we had to wait for the academic year to end.”
By the time the clock reached the half-hour mark, Fabian’s young guns had a total of six attempts in comparison to Niger’s one. The Menas had committed seven fouls, while Ghana registered six which says a lot about the rough and tough nature of the match in Navi Mumbai. However, Ghana displayed a hint of their tactical astuteness with their frenetic speed and deft touch in intervals. And in no time, the Black Starlets started to exploit gaps amidst tackles flying from left, right and center from the opposition.
It looked like anyone’s game before Ayiah, who made yet another mazy run, this time from the right, was brought down inside the box by Idrissa at the stroke of half-time. The Accra-born attacker took the responsibility from the spot and slotted home calmly to shrug some pressure off Ghana’s shoulder. "The penalty came at a very crucial time and it pushed our confidence for the second half. We created a lot of chances but at the tournament like this, only goals matter," said Fabian.
The half-time team talk might have changed a bit as Ghana had one foot in the next round, but the second half was nothing short of a slugfest. After dominating the first half, creating 13 attempts to Niger’s lone effort, the fans expected the latter to bounce back but the Ismalia Tiemoko-led side was outmanoeuvred. Chances arrived for Ghana but the second goal didn’t. Gideon Mensah missed from close range and Ayiah could have had a second penalty goal after Idrissa fouled Emmanuel Toku.
The game remained 1-0 in favour of the Ghanaians as most of the Indian faces were seen cheering for Ghana. But, Fabian knew something was coming as the Niger defence started to crumble under pressure. Substitute Richard Danso belted one from nearly 25 yards to double Ghana’s lead and send the West African side into the last eight, not before a little dance move with his teammates. “Niger did well but they lacked concentration at the end. They were a bit scared in the final minutes. Thankfully, we managed to bag the second,” explained Fabian.
The Black Starlets had a total of seven shots on target out of 23 attempts while Niger did not trouble the Ghanaian keeper. Not even once. It appeared as if Niger were aiming to turn the tables this time around via penalties. They did not seem like a team with a plan, not until the first-half. They invited the pressure and soon paid the price for the same. The Ghanaians, who were the rightful winners of Group A, might have felt the heat in the early stages of the game but prevailed at the right time to set up yet another mouthwatering all-African contest with last edition's runner-up, Mali. The African affair continues.
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