The Ghana - Nigeria match would have put many a child to sleep

The Ghana -Nigeria was billed as a ‘BIG’ game, a match between rivalries etc etc. Despite the different places the two teams found themselves, we still expected non-stop action.

Yet, it was there for all who watched to see. This must have been the most boring Black Stars match I have watched in recent memory and it did not live up to the hype nor the history.It eventually petered out to a goalless draw.

Last weekend’s Tema Youth – Kumasi Asante Kotoko league match was probably more interesting than anything I watched on Tuesday. I could say the players were going through the motions but I am certain we see more during the slower paced practice sessions of the team. A match so pedestrian leaves people scratching their heads and allows for conspiracy theorists to emerge. Apparently some people are suggesting the match was fixed prompting one of the match organizers to issue vehement denials.

After a determined and focused display to ensure qualification for the Cup of Nations 2012, I was expecting more. Coach Goran Stevanovic did as he promised and changed his line up from that match.  Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari, Samuel Inkoom, Derek Boateng got a rest while Daniel Opare wasn’t even in London.

The first half was more eventful with Nigeria coming the closest to scoring, a shot whizzed by Adam Kwarasey and hit the bar, with the keeper clearly beaten. The Ghanaians mainly looked to half chances to open the scoring. The second half was even worse despite the introduction of some of the first team regulars.

Still we got to see a few new players who will be in contention to round up the squad come January. Massawudu Alhassan started at left back and he held his own. Unsurprisingly, he is looking to become a permanent fixture and resolve the left back position. Mohammed Abu and Albert Adomah were two players who also got their first starts. Again, I can’t say they made much of a case beyond being in contention to round out the squad of 23 come January. Players like Abu and Rabiu Mohammed will likely be fighting for any remaining midfield places after the usual suspects are picked.

It will be intriguing to find out how much Stevanovic takes from the bit part appearances of some of the fringe players. What is he looking for when he invites a new player? How does he know a new player can feature for him long term? He shed more light on his vision but many more questions remain. Regardless of the coach’s vision and in effect his final squad of 23 the pressure on him to win will be enormous, a fact he recognizes but tries to downplay.

It’s Ghana vs Nigeria…AGAIN!

Need we say more?

Sometimes just saying Ghana versus Nigeria is enough. Just showing the two flags side by side is enough. You add taunting like the Ghanaian group, FOKN Bois did in a recently released song and the richter scale cannot handle the truth.

The truth is that at this point the Ghanaians are in a more confident and assured place than the Nigerians who seem to have many more questions than answers. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for the 2012 edition of the Cup of Nations and the dirges that will be composed will not even do justice to the despondency of the Eagles fans. As Sunday Oliseh put it to the BBC and I’m paraphrasing here, at least if you don’t qualify for the World Cup you can put up your hands and say ok fine we’re not among the best teams in the World. But when you don’t qualify for the Cup of Nations it is not easy to stomach that you’re not even among the 16 best teams on the continent ‘jare.’

Some Ghanaians however are taking the confidence too far and will tell anyone who will listen that the 2012 cup is theirs. As someone put it, one hand is already on the trophy. A resurgent Senegal and Tunisia and an always talented Cote d’ Ivoire will be saying ‘the audacity!!!’ Thankfully, some of the Stars while recognizing an opportunity remain level-headed.

This is the backdrop heading into Tuesday’s friendly. Ghana is on a high, Nigeria is despondent. An inquest has been commissioned into the Eagles’ performance while Samson Siasia has apologized. Agony reigns and even in Ghana I detect less of the usual glee that greets a Nigerian loss. Call it a case of not wishing this on your worst enemy.

The game will not be called off though. We went down that road once already with the London riots forcing a cancellation of the much hyped game. It might have been a more meaningful contest then. Either way, the current difference in moods will not stop both coaches from defining their own objectives. Ghana might look to experiment while for Nigeria it’s ‘Just Win Baby!

Nigeria are in soul searching mode but will be looking to revenge the humiliating 4-1 loss against Ghana in London years back. Hopefully they don’t panic and make knee-jerk moves. Siasia has instilled some discipline in the team and showed that he’s willing to make some tough choices. With time and with an U-23 squad ready to produce a few more talented players to the Super Eagles, a resurgent Nigeria will be ready to make an impact in 2013. Nevertheless, a loss against Ghana will be the ‘coup de grace’ and Siasia’s qualities will not matter. A win and he might artfully dodge his way into staying on as coach.

Ghana have to continue to develop a style that defines their play under Stevanovic, as well as find more personnel that will play that style and round up his CAN 2012 team. Stevanovic will therefore use this as an opportunity to see some of his new boys in competitive action. Even in experimenting though, they want to keep on winning and feeling good about themselves – especially against Nigeria.

At Crunch Time, Stars Keep it Simple

Are the Black Stars poised to win a trophy after donkey years?

In the slim chance that you haven’t heard by now, the Black Stars of Ghana qualified for the 2012 Cup of Nations by beating Sudan 2-0. Truth be told the scoreline probably flattered Sudan as the Stars squandered some superb opportunities throughout the game. The score could easily have been 4-0. Alas, our profligacy made it a respectable scoreline…for Sudan!

As the final whistle sounded on this and other games across Africa and the casualty ward admitted some of the more accomplished teams in the last 20 years including Egypt, Cameroun, Nigeria and South Africa, the victory chants among some fans on my twitter feed were transformed from we have qualified to we have won the cup already. To those, I say ‘slow your roll.’ Our neighbor Cote d’Ivoire will have as much of a say as Ghana in determining who comes out tops in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon. Tunisia, Senegal and potentially Algeria have the quality to put a monkey wrench in Ghana’s plans. As I have previously mentioned and as this article considers, there are some flaws in our team that can be exploited on a bad day for the Stars.

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism of the cautious kind.

Which brings us back to the game. In a critical moment when all was needed was a draw to go through, Goran Stevanovic showed a pragmatic side in how he set up the team. There were overwhelmingly more defensive minded players on the field than attacking. He was going to make it decidedly more difficult for Sudan to score by packing the midfield and defense. The set up harkened back to Milovan Rajevac’s strategy of one man up top with virtually the rest of the team playing behind the ball. It worked perfectly and the early goal by Asamoah Gyan made the approach even more formidable. The Sudanese chased shadows the whole game and rarely tested Adam Kwarasey. Key to the defensive organization were returnee captain John Mensah and dynamic midfielder Derek Boateng.

Attacking wise, the aim was to get the ball and play really balls up front to Asamoah Gyan with Kwadwo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari and Samuel Inkoom bombing forward in support. For this to work Gyan had to be strong in possession as he was often outnumbered. Boy, was he ever strong. The performance by Gyan was the best I have seen from him since the World Cup. He was as committed and as determined to prove a point as I have ever seen him. He even added a few party tricks along the way as Ghana built a comfortable 2-0 lead heading into half time. It was as though he wanted to silence any doubters and he certainly succeeded. With a goal to his name and tireless running throughout he was definitely a candidate for man of the match.

All in all, it was a very effective and efficient performance from the Stars with the red card to Isaac Vorsah the only blotch. We shall file that in the what in the world was he thinking category and move forward. It was a performance that greatly pleased the coach.


Some of Goran Stevanovic's recent decisions have left fans confused

Over the last four to eight years whenever the Black Stars play, there has been a quiet and healthy confidence. We might not have won every match but you got the sense that fans, players, management were all confident of getting positive results. We had the players led by none other than Michael Essien playing at the top of their game. Essien’s play for Ghana has often been criticized but even when he played at 80 percent of his Chelsea peak, he was still the best player on the pitch and Ghana won. We also had the financial support with the headline Goldfields package introducing some financial stability.

Heading into this weekend’s group I game against Sudan, I can’t help but feel apprehensive. Ghana is one of a number of African ‘powerhouses’ who are in danger of missing out on the 2012 African Cup of Nations. The Black Stars merely have to avoid defeat to qualify though and among the South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana quartet seem in the strongest position. Given that simple task you would think I would retain this healthy confidence. Not!!! I fear that our past successes have created a false sense of confidence to the extent that we think even when we don’t have our best players on the pitch it’s a given that we should win as comfortably as when all our top stars are present.  So while the financial support remains the same, albeit renewed for just a year and many in management remain, the uncertainty surrounding our team is concerning.

Several key developments have created this apprehension. The latest is the dropping of Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew from the team because he was ‘coming back from injury.’ This ‘coming back from injury’ excuse was mysteriously not applied to John Mensah. In a week in which Dede made headlines on the pitch in European Champions League as well as in Ligue 1 action, the Ayew camp promptly let Ghanaian media know that he never asked to be excused. These two may well be true. Stevanovic may have dropped Dede because he wanted to give a rest and Dede may well not have wanted to rest. Either way, he’s not coming.

Coupled with the rumors of a refusal by Kevin Prince Boateng to play for the Black Stars again as long as Goran Stevanovic is coach. Some news reports Boateng denied this using his twitter account but @kpbofficial which is the verified twitter account I know for Kevin Prince has no record of such comments. Either way, the constant speculation on the status of the relationship between player and coach concern me. After all, if footyghana.com is to be believed, Kwesi Nyantakyi said in an interview that Boateng failed to call Stevanovic back on two occassions after the coach had called him. Nyantakyi subsequently denied using those words. In any case, those two situations for me fall under the ‘there is no smoke without fire’ category. Kwadwo Asamoah’s benching against Swaziland also raises red flags. Even though he came on and played well, his subsequent lackluster performance against Brazil suggests that he stands on wobbly grounds for his inconsistency. In these three instances, what I take away is that the communication between the coach and players could be better. In Asamoah’s case, his benching suggested he wasn’t implementing the coach’s tactics.

Finally, Richard Kingson’s exclusion from the squad while not totally surprising is the final evidence that the spine of the team is changing as I mentioned a few weeks back. The goalkeeper is changing, captain John Mensah’s injuries mean Jonathan Mensah or any other capable defender who will step up will slowly replace him, Agyemang Badu is also nudging Anthony Annan to the bench. All the strikers outside of Asamoah Gyan are a formidable striker away from being replaced so that department is bound to face some changes soon.

Having said all this, it is worth noting that Stevanovic has by and large made a winning start in coaching the Black Stars. Many of these wins are a residue of the quiet confidence instilled in the team and the cohesion promoted by his predecessors. So far, Stevanovic’s imprint does not yet seem to continue that assurance. As he unearths and integrates new players like Albert Adomah, Massawudu Alhassan and Abu Mohammed among others in the squad, he is going to have to settle on a winning style and a team spine which will bring back that stability. Add an improved communication style and he might well fulfill his promise of bringing Ghana multiple trophies.