x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Nigeria’s new generation Eaglets are playing ‘total football’

Coach Garba poses faith in his side to do better than the senior side as they take on Uruguay for a place in the semi-finals.

Manu Garba has spent time getting the best talent together and instilling team ethic in them. Razan Alzayani / The National
Manu Garba has spent time getting the best talent together and instilling team ethic in them. Razan Alzayani / The National
SHARJAH // A new philosophy, yet the same old results. Nigeria, powerhouses in this age-group category, may have tweaked tactics and shuffled strategies, but today they find themselves in a familiar position: a quarter-final of the Fifa U17 World Cup.

The game against Uruguay tonight marks the team’s ninth final-eight appearance in their past 10 attempts, with 2003 the only interruption in what has become a refrain. Three-time champions of this competition, and thrice runners-up – just keep to what you are doing, right?

Yet Manu Garba, the ultra-confident Nigeria coach, has plotted a fresh path. Having spent two years traversing the continent’s most-populous country in search of the very best talent, the “new” Golden Eaglets are seeking an unprecedented fourth global title.

“We are playing a new generation of total football,” Garba said. “Gone are the days when Nigerian teams play kick and follow. Now we build up from the back, we keep the ball until we have space to attack.”

Attack, they have. In four fixtures here, Nigeria have found the net 18 times, a feat matched only by Brazil, who were eliminated last night by Mexico.

Brazil’s continental comrades are expected to offer a stiff test this evening, though. Uruguay topped a difficult Group B, ahead of Italy and Ivory Coast, and continued their good form by rushing to a 4-0 lead in the last-16 clash with Slovakia. They could even afford to slacken somewhat, eventually winning 4-2.

Now Uruguay have their sights set on going one better than they did in 2011, when Mexico, then the hosts, denied them a first U17 world crown.

There is reason for optimism here, however strained. Recent meetings between the sides have favoured Uruguay, although those have come at the U20 and senior level.

It is an observation that has not escaped Garba, yet he continues, in typical fashion, to back his youngsters.

“The Golden Eaglets are different from the Super Eagles,” he said, referring to Nigeria’s senior national team, “and even if you bring a Uruguayan side with Diego Forlan, we would try our best to win the match.

“As I have said earlier, the knockout stage is the most difficult stage of any competition. But we are ready to beat Uruguay because our only aim of being here is to win the trophy.”

Such is the momentum behind Nigeria that many see the West Africans as favourites.

The conviction has been built upon that tangible team ethic, where even the absence, through injury, of Success Isaac, their standout striker, has been negated by the collective performances of Kelechi Iheanacho, Musa Yahaya, Musa Muhammed and Taiwo Awoniyi.

“Initially, when we started building this team, we called them the ‘new’ Golden Eaglets because we decided we needed a new philosophy for them,” Graba said. “Ours is a new concept of total football.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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