Captain of the U20 Flying Eagles, Ikouwem Udoh Utin has expressed relief after the team squeezed into the Round of 16 following a 1-1 draw against Group D winners Ukraine at the FIFA U20 World Cup currently going on in Poland.
Nigeria went into the encounter against the Ukrainians needing at least a draw to qualify for the knockout stages but looked in danger of an early exit after they fell to Danyle Sikan’s opener on the half-hour mark.
Muhamed Tijani then missed a penalty on the stroke of half time to compound Nigeria’s fears but he, however, made amends from the spot in the second half to ensure a share of the spoils for the Flying Eagles in Bielsko-Biala.
The result enabled Nigeria – who finished third behind Ukraine and the USA – move into the knockout stage as one of four best third-placed teams and Utin described the face-saving draw that enabled progress into the next round as one they “have been praying for” prior to the game. The defender also explained that their below-par performances so far at the tournament would drive them to improve in subsequent games.
“We are very happy [and] I want to thank God for the result; that’s what we have been praying for – to qualify to the next stage,” the 19-year old left back said. “I want to thank all the fans, the supporters that believed in us, the Nigerians that know that we can do it no matter how we lost the game we played against the USA, I believe that this game will motivate us in the next round to make we take every game as a final to make sure that we qualify.”
The Enyimba of Aba product said the Flying Eagles had approached the game with Ukraine with “a mentality of winning” knowing that losing would mean an embarrassing group stage exit, but said the draw was acceptable since it ensured they prolonged their stay in Poland to maintain their hunt for a first ever triumph at this level. He also highlighted the input of the backroom staff in ensuring they got the result required for progress into the next round.
“We entered into the game with a mentality of winning the game but we thank God as the result came. We drew, at least one point helped us qualify also I’m very happy with the boys because they were more aggressive and put their efforts and their best to make sure that we win this game. I want to thank them and thank the coaches for their efforts also, the tactical training that they gave to us was what helped us in this last game.”
The Flying Eagles will most likely face familiar foes and Group A winners, Senegal who they lost 2-0 to in the final of the WAFU Cup last December. That loss Utin believes, wouldn’t play on the minds of his teammates when they tackle the Senegalese again because “this one is World Cup” and a match they “must win” to keep their hopes alive.
“Senegal in this tournament are a good side, they have won almost three games,” the rapid defender who has agreed a deal to join Israeli powerhouses Maccabi Haifa after the tournament said.
“I think they’re good and we met them at the AFCON and also WAFU Cup, but this one is World Cup. So, I think we are going to play them with another mentality that we must win so that we qualify because if we don’t win them, we can’t qualify. It is not all about group stage it is all about qualifying, so we are going to make sure that we try our best and qualify.”