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WITH U-20 WORLD CUP TICKET AT STAKE, NIGERIA, NIGER SET FOR BATTLE OF ALL BATTLES

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Nigeria and Niger are neighbours. Yet football matches pairing both are few and far in between. At the U-20 level, they are meeting for the third time ever when they file out at the Stade Seyni Kountche Stadium in Niamey on Friday.

The first clash of both teams was on May 26, 2007. Nigeria won 2-0. Such a win is what the Flying Eagles will wish in the clash on Friday. The last time they met was at the WAFU Cup Tournament in Lome, Togo in December 2018. It ended goalless.

Friday’s clash is a destiny-shaping one for both. It is a winner-takes-all-encounter. A win will guarantee a FIFA U-20 World Cup ticket for any of the two sides. Even a draw will be sufficient for Nigeria.

According to information from the media department of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), the Head Coach, Paul Aigbogun said his Nigeria U20 squad will go for nothing less than outright victory.

Aigbogun, alongside assistants Abdu Maikaba, Hassan Abdallah and Suleiman Shuaibu, took the seven –time African champions through their last training session on Thursday evening, at the National Technical Centre, Niamey.

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He told thenff.com that focus would be on scoring the goals that would earn Nigeria a FIFA U20 World Cup ticket.

“This is our most important match of the tournament so far. There would be no looking back. We are playing the host team but our minds are made up to go all out. Only a win can guarantee us a place in Poland.

“Of course, we noticed a few things in the first two matches we played. The corrections we have made would help us greatly in Friday’s match.”

The Flying Eagles have to be at their very best against a home team that requires an outright victory as well to be in with a chance of qualification, as they trail Nigeria by two points and are level with South Africa.

Needing the minimum win possible to snatch a World Cup ticket early when they took on South Africa on Tuesday, Aigbogun’s wards made hard work of it, with the match ending 0-0, rather handing the Amajita a chance to remain in the tournament if they overpower Burundi in Maradi on Friday.

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Thursday’s training session was high on ball work and diligence.

Goalkeeper Olawale Oremade is likely to keep his place between the sticks, as defenders Mike Zaruma, Ikouwem Utin, Igoh Ogbu and Valentine Ozornwafor.

Their alliance is still unbreached in the championship. Jamil Muhammad and Afeez Aremu could remain in the midfield with Alhassan Adamu in front of them, though Aigbogun may tinker with the strike force, with Ibrahim Abubakar, Aliyu Ibrahim, Nazifi Yahaya, Effiom Maxwell, Adeshina Gata and Sweden –based Onyekachi Paschal all in good shape.

The Group A is delicately poised and goes to the wire. With four points, Nigeria top the pool ahead of Niger and South Africa, with two points each, while Burundi has only one point.

A draw against the Junior Mena would see the Flying Eagles through to the semi finals and a spot at the FIFA U20 World Cup in pocket, and in this case victory for South Africa over Burundi would also see the Amajita through.

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Yet, victory for the host nation over Nigeria, and victory for South Africa against Burundi, would eliminate the seven –time champions. Also, if Burundi secures a high-margin win over South Africa, and the Junior Mena overpower the Flying Eagles, Niger Republic and Burundi would go through to the last four and to Poland.

The senior vice president of the NFF, Seyi Akinwunmi, who is Niamey as a member of the CAF Committee on Youth Competitions, visited the Flying Eagles at training on Thursday. He charged them to go all out as it is never wise for any team to play for a draw.

Coach Aigbogun and assistants have the benefit of having played the Nigeriens previously. Both teams fought to a scoreless statement at the WAFU Cup Tournament in Lome, Togo in December 2018.

And on Tuesday, following their 0-0 draw with South Africa, Nigeria’s technical team stayed behind at the Stade Seyni Kountche to watch Burundi come from 1-3 behind to draw with the Junior Mena.

The Flying Eagles have an extra motivation to put on their best on Friday, as officials confirmed to thenff.com that Super Eagles’ Technical Adviser Gernot Rohr would arrive in Niamey in time to watch the clash with Niger.

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 Rohr has promised to include one or two of the Flying Eagles in the senior team’s squad for the 2019 AFCON qualifier against Seychelles and the prestige friendly against Egypt, both coming up next month.

As it is, all four of Africa’s flagbearers at this summer’s FIFA U20 World Cup in Poland would be known tomorrow. Senegal, who play Burkina Faso in Maradi on Saturday, have already picked a ticket while the Burkina are eliminated after two losses in as many matches.

Nigeria square up against Niger Republic at the same time as South Africa would be battling Burundi in Maradi. The Nigeria/Niger Republic encounter would give way to the Group B clash between Ghana and Mali. Both have three points each. These three matches will produce the remaining three tickets to Poland.

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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