Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets today beat Tunisia in a thrilling 4-2 semi-final match at the Africa Under-17 championship to set up Saturday’s all-West Africa derby against Cote d’Ivoire, the only team to have beaten them in about 30 matches.
Cote d’Ivoire, who beat hosts Morocco 2-1 in the first semi-final on Tuesday, inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Nigeria in their Group B encounter last week, although the Eaglets eventually topped the group.
Today, goals by Kelechi Iheanacho, Success Isaac and a brace by Musa Yahaya were enough to see off the resilient Tunisian challenge in a dramatic game under the searing sun in Marrakech.
Nigeria started well with three well-taken goals in the first 20 minutes. Iheanacho scored the curtain raiser as early as the second minute for his fifth goal of the tournament when he slotted the ball behind Ben Hamza in goal for Tunisia.
Yahaya scored the second goal in the 11th minute when he drove the ball into the net following a swift exchange with Iheanacho. Twenty minutes into the match, tournament leading scorer Success added another goal when he pushed in a loose ball following a corner kick from Chidiebere Nwakali.
But the Tunisians demonstrated they did not get to the semi-final by accident, driving forward and cashing-in on momentary losses of concentration in the Eaglets’ defence.
Twice, the young Nigerians were punished in the 24th and 3Oth minutes to turn the game into a heated battle but they survived the pressure to end the first half 3-2.
The second half resumed with greater urgency, the Nigerians returning to the torrid ground campaign at which they are most comfortable, leading to Yahaya scoring his second goal in the 57th minute off a brilliant pass from Ifeanyi Matthew. The team missed several other chances but survived the Tunisian scare to qualify for their first final match since 2007.
“We are very happy to qualify for the final because our aim was to come here and win this trophy and make Nigerians happy,” second half substitute Chidera Ezeh said at the post match conference.”
Coach Manu Garba, in his characteristic manner, gave thanks to God for helping the team to reach the final, where he said the Ivorians would witness a tougher game.
“The final match against Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday is going to be a different ball game because we were unlucky when they beat us 1-0 in the group stage,” he said.” We are going to play a better game because we now know them better.”
Tunisian coach Ben Soltane Abdelhay admitted that today’s match was a difficult game for both teams, but admitted that the Nigerians were stronger and deserve their place in the final.
“It was a tough match for us because Nigeria was stronger physically,” he said.” The temperature affected us too but that is not taking anything away from Nigeria.”
Saturday’s final between Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire will be the first at this level, but Nigeria’s fourth final appearance. The Golden Eaglets conquered the continent twice in 2001 and 2007 but were unsuccessful in 1995.