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GAMBIA BEAT SEVEN-TIME CHAMPIONS TO REACH HISTORIC U-20 AFCON FINAL

The Gambia U-20 came into this semifinal with so much weight on their shoulders – twice losing at the same stage in 2007 and 2021 and facing seven-time record champions, Nigeria. It was truly a moment of uncertainty.

And, the Young Scorpions exceeded their wildest dreams with a performance of quality and discipline that send shock waves across the 36 states of Nigeria as they condemned the Flying Eagles to an emphatic 1 – 0 defeat.

And again, it was the magical Adama Bojang, who makes the difference with a delightful strike just after 7 minutes that send the Gambia to a first-ever final of the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations. They inflicted shock, pain, and disbelief on a population of over 200 million people who will be cursing forward Ahmed Abdoulahi for missing a penalty in the closing stages that would have drawn Nigeria back on level terms. 

The Gambia will now take on Senegal in the finals on Saturday 11th March in what is going to be a clash between neighbors.

THE APPROACH THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE

If there is anything that deserved credit for this win, is the tactical discipline of the Gambian side. From start to finish, they stayed committed to their style and refused to be intimidated by the achievement of Nigeria.

The Flying Eagles had been hailed as one of the most exciting teams in the tournament which was clearly seen in their performance in this game and the ones before,  a proof of their positive, refreshing approach.

Yet, against the Young Scorpions in this all-West African clash, they came up against a complete discipline and intelligent side that accorded them the respect they deserve from start to finish, but, denied them the space they so ruthlessly exploited in their games against Mozambique and Uganda.

It was a simple game plan, brilliantly orchestrated by Mahmud Bajo and executed by his teammates like fellow midfielder Rashid Njie, and center-back Alagie Saine.

And in the end, The Gambia reserve the right to boast of showing to the world how to stop a serial champion from reaching a stage they considered their own as Adama Bojang makes the difference.

UNSTOPPABLE ADAMA BOJANG

The Steve Biko starlet struggled at the group stages for goals leaving coach Abdoulie Bojang with homework to figure out why the marksman was not doing what he is quite known for – scoring. And, so too the supporters were asking.

But, in the quarterfinals, he was unstoppable, marking his presence in the competition with a hat trick, making him the first Gambian to score a hat trick in any CAF competition. Again, against Nigeria, the young star was in the limelight.

For the most part, Nigeria’s hard-pressing left Adama Bojang isolated in the lone strike position and chances were not forthcoming on his path. And, Adama and his Gambia side proved that one opportunity was all that was needed to penetrate Nigeria.

More like a gift, Onuche Ogbelu’s clearance ricocheted off the head of Ebrima Singhateh and fell to the path of the unmarked Adama Bojang. Knowing that they are playing against record champions, Bojang took advantage of the chance like it was never going to come again. He Outran two Nigerian defenders and curled into the bottom corner for the breakthrough.

Bojang now scored four goals in the tournament only sitting second in the top scorers’ chart, one adrift of Senegal’s Pape Diop who scored five.  

The Gambia’s young forward reportedly caught the attention of many teams in Europe including Tottenham and Nottingham. His spacing and clinical ability makes him a standout forward, now that he scored a goal that knocked out the big giants, this could mean renewed interest from more club.

This was a great day and a great moment for the Gambia, but it has a moment of an eclipse as Gambia's reliable midfielder Haruna Rashid Njie was sent off for a second yellow card offense in the 89th minutes. A more accustomed 10-player who has been used as a central midfielder throughout, performed beyond the expectation of not only the coach, but the entire scorpion's fans. Considering the dynamics of the team, this might not be a great miss for coach Abdoulie Bojang, but, Rashid once more proved his worth even against a dominant Nigeria side. 

DOMINANT BUT TOOTHLESS 

Nigeria knew they had pride and a reputation to protect, seven-time champions, twice runners up, and five times finishing as bronze medalists, as such they showed a performance that left the Gambia running for cover for the larger part. 

They were dominant, yet toothless. It took them 29 minutes to cause a major threat when they nearly leveled matters after a mixed up at the Gambia's back between the rushing keeper Pa Ebou Dampha and Moses Jarju, but Nigeria's attempt went just wide off an unguarded post even though recovering Gambia's captain Alagie Saine was willing to handle the ball to prevent it from scoring as he stretched a hand towards the ball, but luckily for him, he missed what would have earned him a straight red. 

Nigeria continued to dominate but could not find the means to beat past the Gambia's keeper Pa Ebou Dampha whose high sense of alertness, magnetic catch, and aerial ability makes him a realistic contender for the goalkeeper of the tournament's award. 

In the 86 minutes, Nigeria was handed a golden opportunity to level the tie after a controversial VAR review adjudged Pa Ebou Dampha to have brought down Abdullahi in the box for a penalty. Substitute Ahmed Abdullahi who plays for K.A.A Gent in Belgium, agonizingly hit the base of the post from 12 yards, and the Gambia who feel cheated breathe a sigh of relief. 

That was not the end of the drama. The Gambia were reduced to 10 men in the closing stages, when midfielder Rashid Njie who was booked for decent in the 84th minute after the penalty decision, received his second yellow in the 89th minute for what the referee described as a high booth.

At that moment, it was too little too late as the Nigerians were not able to stage anything meaningful even after the addition of five minutes. The Gambia's back four and their goalkeeper were as solid as the Berlin Wall. 21 attempts without a goal, Nigeria were truly toothless as the Gambia reach a historic milestone achievement. 

Ladan Isah Bosso, Nigeria's coach before the game said his side are 'no South Sudan'. That is true, given the difference in quality, but, they were equally not able to stop the Gambia from scoring, nor were they able to penetrate them. He was forced to swallow his words by the dynamic Young Scorpions, who are still yet to concede a goal, no surprise their goalkeeper Pa Ebou Dampha was awarded the man of the match. 

The Gambia will now take on Senegal in the Senegambia derby in the finals. Senegal has proven itself as the best team in the tournament, scoring 12 goals without conceding any yet, that is enough justification to label them as legitimate title contenders. But, this Gambia side are dynamic and does not care about the reputation and achievements of their opponents. With their pragmatic coach Abdoulie Bojang, they are quite capable of producing any shocker. 

It will be interesting to see how that game will end.

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