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Manu Garba seeking redemption with Nigeria's Golden Eaglets

Two years after going from world champions to failing to qualify for the tournament, Nigeria's under-17 football team have made their way back to the global fiesta via a top four place at the U-17 Africa Cup of Nations.

Five-time winners Nigeria are the most successful team at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup, and they also boast three runners-up placings.

Current coach Manu Garba guided the Golden Eaglets to their fourth title in 2013, while his assistant, current Tanzania coach Emmanuel Amuneke, took charge and won the fifth championship at the very next tournament in Chile two years later.

So it is no surprise that the brief for the current team, with Garba back in charge, is to claim a sixth title.

The first step towards that objective was achieved when the team topped their group and progressed to the semifinals of the Under 17 Afcon in Tanzania, though they lost on penalties to Guinea on Wednesday.

This success, which secured their place in the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Brazil later in the year, makes up in part for the disappointment of two years ago, when Garba's charges were bundled out of Afcon qualifying with some indignity.

A major part of that failure was attributed to the fact that 26 players failed mandatory Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) screening tests to check their age, and were subsequently cut from the squad.

An MRI is used to scan the wrist plate of players to accurately check their age, and the ghosts of the failed tests continue to haunt the squad as Garba has had to rebuild his team three times in less than a year after repeated MRI failures.

In a country with often poor record-keeping, the tests are the best way to determine if players fall into the qualifying age band; the failed tests left Garba having to rebuild the core of his team from scratch, selecting second- and third-choice players at short notice.

Influential skipper Sani Abacha and lead striker Aliyu Bravo Ibrahim were among a posse of players omitted from the Afcon squad after failing NFF-conducted tests, and five more players were cut having failed MRI tests after winning the West African Football Union qualifying tournament.

"We did not want to take any chances," a top NFF official told ESPN.

"We want to be sure that the there are no last minute surprises like last time."

Nigeria Under-17 assistant coach Nduka Ugbade told ESPN: "It is true the MRI thing affected the team, but we have credible back-ups and they are doing quite well.

"They just need more exposure."

Garba managed the difficult situation with aplomb.

The Golden Eaglets topped their group to reach the Afcon semifinals, defeating Tanzania 5-4 and Angola 1-0 before drawing with Uganda 1-1, but they did so with less of the panache of the previous sides, and one too many jerky steps, especially for a Garba team.

Still, striker Wisdom Ubani, who had to step up, emerged as one of the tournament's head turners, despite being guilty of many of the Eaglets' spurned chances.

And the defence, despite the glaring weakness at right-back, provided adequate cover for goalkeeper Sunday Stephen, who was less than convincing.

Midfielder and captain Shamsideen Tijani led with strength and creativity, winning one man-of-the-match award, while forward Ibraheem Jabaar moved from a 'super sub' to dangerous starter with two goals. And Akinwumi Amoo was an absolute livewire.

The team stuck to Garba's philosophy of playing the ball on the ground, taking the game to their opponents and creating a multitude of chances... Chances that they will need to put away when they travel to Brazil later in the year.

"We will improve on our performance," Ugbade told ESPN.

Others are not as confident.

"I don't think they will win the World Cup," youth football expert Suleiman Mohammed told ESPN.

"This MRI has affected the team a lot. Some of the players there now were not even reserves a month ago."

It is, however, a measure of the NFF's confidence in Garba's ability to win the World Cup again that he was recalled to coach the team, and then retained despite missing qualification for the 2017 tournament.

That belief must be rewarded by the coach and his wards, putting this recent defeat behind them as they face the next challenge in Brazil.

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