While the final standings from Group F of the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 give the impression that Nigeria and Mexico merely confirmed pre-tournament expectations by brushing aside newcomers Sweden and Iraq, the African giants and North American title-holders made heavy weather of their passage through the first round.
Sweden were certainly on song, and it was the debutants’ excellent performance against both heavyweight contenders that helped booked them a Round of 16 berth as one of four best third-placed teams.
Nigeria got their tournament off to a dream start with a scintillating attacking display in a 6-1 victory over Mexico in their opening game, the worst defeat suffered by any title-holder in the history of the U-17 World Cup. But they came crashing back to earth against Sweden, battling to a 3-3 draw, before Manu Garbo went back to the drawing board for the final game against Iraq - his charges notching five uncontested goals to secure their place at the top of the table.
Section runners-up Mexico had to wait until the 88th minute of their final group game against Sweden to make certain of their spot in the next round. After the shock defeat to Nigeria, the reigning champions regrouped to put away Iraq 3-1, before substitute Ulises Jaimes slipped the winner past Sweden to get their sixth point on the board and ensure their progress. Raul Gutierrez’s players will have to work hard to eliminate errors if they want to retain their title.
Dark horses Sweden can hold their heads high after qualifying from a strong group against all expectations. Their first ever U-17 World Cup game was a 4-1 victory over Iraq, but Nigeria were a different matter and a hard-fought draw resulted. Mexico handed them their first defeat and, though the result of this last game did not affect the standings, it will be playing on their minds as they prepare to take on a Japanese outfit that has won all three of its group matches.
Iraq have fought valiantly, but courage alone was not enough. Their opening defeat to Sweden will have hurt as the game was poised at 1-1 until the 67th minute, nor were they able to make a strong enough response against Mexico. By the time they came face-to-face with Nigeria, the Iraqis had nothing left in the tank and when the dust had settled their tally of goals conceded was the highest of the competition.
With a convincing win over the champions under their belts and an attack firing on all cylinders, Nigeria were expected to blow Sweden away. But by the 19th minute the Europeans were two goals ahead and the largely pro-Nigerian crowd in Al Ain City’s Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium had been stunned into silence.
It took the favourites until the 48th minute to restore parity, but just as everyone was waiting for Nigeria to put in the winner, Swedish substitute Mirza Halvadzic scored his side’s third. It took another substitute, Taiwo Awoniyi, to spare his team’s blushes, stroking in the sixth and last goal of a thrilling 3-3 draw.
Group F’s contests showcased the skills of a number of young players in both attack and defence. Kelechi Iheanacho’s hat trick against Mexico made him the talk of the tournament’s opening day, while the second leg brought plaudits for Sweden’s Valmir Berisha, Mexico’s Alejandro Diaz and Iraq striker Sherko Kareem. But it was a defender who stole the thunder in the final round of matches, with Osvaldo Rodriguez producing a commanding performance for Mexico to hold off Sweden.
28 - The total number of goals scored over the six matches at 4.6 goals per game, the highest average of any group at UAE 2013. Much of the credit must go to Nigeria, whose tally of 14 goals equaled their tournament record for the group stage, which they set at Japan 1993 before going on to claim a second of three titles. Can Nigeria go on to lift the trophy a fourth time in UAE?
“We had a dreadful start to the tournament against Nigeria, who gave us a very tough game. After that we improved. We have to keep giving the same enthusiasm, energy and performances, and we hope we can reproduce what we’ve been doing in training out on the pitch for this next crucial game,” Mexico coach Raul Gutierrez