Under a light drizzle and bright flood lights, the Black Stars trained Wednesday night for their African Cup of Nations qualifier against Swaziland. It reminded me of my younger years when rain made me want to go outside and play. Utterances by some players and the head coach however suggest this is no child’s play. The leaders of the team like John Pantsil have said they are not taking their opponents lightly and the practice showed. Coach Goran Stevanovic’s demeanor suggests that the whole team means business.
Constantly instructing his players, he was relaying what I imagine are the fundamental principles of how he wants his team to function and the basic game plan he has for Friday night.
I joined practice when there was a scrimmage between a team composed largely of players you would expect to start the game Friday (probables) and the rest of the squad (possibles). Adam Kwarasey was in goal for the probables. The back four was John Pantsil, Jonathan Mensah, Isaac Vorsah, and Daniel Opare. The midfield was manned by Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah, Anthony Annan and Emmanuel Agyemang Badu. The two strikers were Prince Tagoe and Asamoah Gyan. At this stage of the practice, if I were to guess I would have said this was going to be the starting line-up. By the end, I wasn’t so sure.
Stevanovic was intent on simulating in game situations and looking for his players to react the way he wants. It was impossible to hear exactly what he was saying because I was in the stands but sometimes actions speak louder than words and his hand gestures told their own story.
Both teams worked a lot on how to play when they weren’t in possession. Consequently, a lot of the instruction was directed at what to do as soon as they got the ball. Basically, how does one transition swiftly from defense to offense. Play was concentrated in the midfield so the midfielders had to be sharp. Stevanovic wants his team to quickly switch from one side of the pitch to the other and for his midfielders to quickly look for overlapping full backs. Any opportunity to have more numbers in the opponent’s half as soon as you gain possession is welcome. Whatever lessons he was imparting, the possibles as is often the case in practices seemed more adept at executing.
That was until Annan, Muntari and Tagoe switched sides with Derek Boateng, Dede Ayew and Dominic Adiyiah. Anthony Annan does not appear fit, let alone match fit while Prince Tagoe’s partnership with Asamoah Gyan is non-existent. They simply do not click and that makes the attack ponderous. Muntari looks leaner, the result perhaps of a hard preseason at Inter but nothing can replace competitive matches for a footballer and Dede looked sharper. Unfortunately, this change happened for about ten minutes so I caution anyone into reading too much into it. Also, this was the first practice session I attended so I’m unable to compare the players’ output on this occasion to others.
My sense from day one of Stevanovic’s selections is that while by the time Milovan Rajevac left he preferred Dede for his defensive abilities, all round youthful energy and exhuberance, Stevanovic likes the attacking mindset of Muntari. Mind you, it took a while for Rajevac to reach his conclusion on Dede and Stevanovic might come to it as well. For now, it appears he sees Muntari as more of a starter.
The absence of Kevin-Prince Boateng limits Stevanovic’s options however. In Boateng, he could maintain the 4-3-1-2 formation and shift Kwadwo Asamoah to play more on the left wing so that Boateng fills in as the attacker just behind the two strikers, a position he plays so well for Milan. It’s an option Stevanovic doesn’t have due to an alleged bust up, a situation he addressed.
With or without Boateng, this squad should steamroll the Swazis on Friday. It is on Monday, that KPB’s dynamism may be missed.