On AFCON Sunday, the Black Stars will attempt to break the jaws of a Leopard side who consigned the fancied, Ivory Coast, the defending champions to an early exit. They go into this game with a paradox of having a better head-to-head record of eight wins, four losses and three draws; a better AFCON glory and yet appear to be dark horses in a game the Leopards are favourites to win.
Despite picking six points out of nine and qualifying to the quarters with a game to spare, the Black Stars have been far from impressive and their second half performances have left a sour taste in the mouths of their lethargic fans back at home who are waiting for the first Nations Cup glory in 35 years.
To make matters worse, the Stars are likely to miss their heartbeat of the team, their skipper Asamoah Gyan who keeps and lifts the soul of the team when they are down. And this is a must win game for the Stars.
But the Leopards are on a higher wavelength going into this game. With six incredible goals, in three games, Florent Ibenge’s side have a shown a depth in quality and underlined their title credentials for this year’s AFCON. They are compact, stronger in physique than their Ghanaian counterparts, and look more ominous in front of goal.
Attack Vrs Defence
Sunday’s clash will be a test of a free scoring Leopard side and a resolute Black Stars defence. The Stars have scored two in three games and conceded one in same whilst the Congolese have scored six and conceded three. Junior Kabananga who is always ready to create something out of nothing, leads the AFCON goal king race with three goals.
He will be a slippery customer for the Stars who have not done badly in defence either. While the pair of John Boye and Daniel Amartey have created some telepathy in the heart of defence, the unsung hero has been Mubarak Wakaso whose bullish and rugged tackles in midfield have shielded the defence.
That, the only goal the Stars conceded in this tournament was against Egypt, in a game Wakaso and Partey were rested for most part; in a game Jonathan Mensah made his debut in the tournament and made a howler in defence for the Stars to concede that goal is a testament of the Stars’ defensive prowess.
Mensah, in an uncharacteristic casual manner, gave away a freekick which Mohammed Sallah blasted home for Egypt’s only goal. It was a goal their lives depended on and Mensah gifted it.
In the game against DR Congo, however, Ghana’s coach Avram Grant will hopefully revert to his first team which had Amartey and John Boye in defence, Harrison Afful and Frank Acheampong manning the defensive flanks on the right and left respectively. The only doubt might be Gyan who is still struggling with injury but Partey and Wakaso return in midfield for the Stars and that looks a pretty solid side.
Test of Character
There is everything at stake in Sunday’s clash. There is qualification for the semis and two games away to AFCON glory for DR Congo. They are chasing their third AFCON trophy. But for the Stars there is much more. They have an insatiable, angry fans back at home who will not accept anything but an AFCON trophy.
The 50% slash in bonuses for the Stars means nothing for the fans back at home. They want the trophy. They are thirsty for it. For thirty odd years they have been fed with silver at AFCON when they needed gold and only recently angered by an embarrassing Brazil 2014 World Cup fiasco.
It is gold or nothing else for those fans and the Stars know it! Their biggest consolation too is that they are moving from a potato-farm-like-pitch at Port Gentil to Stade’Oyem which is not the best but looks more friendly for football at the highest level.
Players like Christian Atsu, Dede and Jordan Ayew like to express themselves and they need a better pitch to do that. The pitch at Port Gentil is a confidence dampener to any team whose strength is to ball joggle and keep possession.
The just ended European Cup glory by Portugal has shown that a team does not necessarily have to play well to win the trophy at a big tournament. It has to be tactically disciplined and mentally strong. DR Congo have played well and look the better of the two going into Sunday’s clash but the Stars have always responded well to a bigger opponent.
The Black Stars are the weaker of the two in strength but stronger in the mind and more tactically disciplined. And if they want to play well, they can beat any team.
Sunday will be an awesome afternoon for football but in the end I expect the Black Stars to make their 6th successive semi-final appearance in a tournament they have won four times the last of which was on in 1982.
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