Navi Mumbai: Two-time champions Ghana will start as favourites against a gutsy continental neighbours Niger in what promises to be an exciting round of 16 clash in the FIFA U-17 World Cup on Wednesday. Ghana have a pedigree in the age-group competition having won it in 1991 and 1995 and having reached four out of five finals in the 1990s in which they dominated the age group competition.
However, since then they have not stamped their authority as they would have wanted in the event and would be aware of their African opponents' ability to create surprises. In fact, it was Niger that had stopped five-time champions and geographical neighbours Nigeria from entering the competition held in India for the first time in the zonal stage in their home continent.
Niger had pumped in a last-gasp goal against their more fancied and stronger rivals in the return leg after having lost the first leg 0-1 to Nigeria. They won on aggregate and made it to the CAF Africa U17 Cup of Nations competition, the last qualifying stage to book their berth to India.
There too Niger exceeded expectations by earning a 2-2 draw against Angola, losing to another top team Mali 0-1 and beating Tanzania 1-0 to reach the semi-final, where they were beaten on penalties by Ghana, their rivals, before losing 1-3 to Guinea in the third place match.
Niger, known as Junior Menas, can certainly upset the apple cart of "Black Starlets", if the latter take them lightly which they will certainly not do. Niger have not really impressed in their brief stay at Kochi and Goa.
In Group D they have been outclassed by European champions Spain (4-0) and South American champions Brazil (2-0) and have made it to the round of sixteen only by beating North Korea 1-0 and finishing third in the group with three points.
Niger should thank Salim Abdourahmane for pumping in their match-winner in the second half against the North Koreans which earned them a last 16 berth by virtue of being one of the four best third place finishers in the preliminary group stage of the competition.
On the other hand Ghana, known for their pace and ball skills, had qualified for the tournament in this country with a start-stop campaign with a 4-0 victory over Cameroon and 5-0 verdict over Gabon as their most impressive runs.
But they can frustrate their fans as shown in 0-0 drawn games against Guinea and win on penalties over Niger to enter the final before losing 0-1 to Mali in the final of the continental championships.
In their Group A clashes, Ghana hit their straps by topping it with 1-0 and 4-0 victories over Colombia and hosts India interspersed with a 0-1 loss to USA. All their goals have been scored by different players so far. Ghana certainly have the wherewithal to down their fellow-African opponents and earn a berth in the quarters against Mali or Iraq, if they play to potential.
Squads: Ghana: Danlad Ibrahim, John Out, Gideon Acquah, Edmund Arko-Mensah, Najeeb Yakubu, Eric Ayiah, Ibrahim Sulley, Kudus Mohammed, Richard Danso, Emmanuel Toku, Aminu Mohammed, Abdul Yusif, Gabriel Leveh, Bismark Owusu, Kwame Aziz, Rashid Alhassan, Mohammed Iddriss, Sadiq Ibrahim, Isaac Gyamfi, Michael Acquaye.
Niger: Moussa Laouali, Yacine Wa Massamba, Mahamadou Mahamane, Nasser Mahaman, Farouk Idrissa, Ismail Issaka, Ismael Issaka, Inoussa Amadou, Habibou Sofiane, Kairou Amoustapha, Rachid Alfari, Karim Tinni, Djibrilla Ibrahim, Yacouba Aboubacar, Kader Aboubacar, Rachid Soumana, Abdoulaye Boubacar, Ibrahim Boubacar, Ibrahim Namata, Salim Abdourahmane, Hamid Galissoune, Khaled Lawali.