Missing Link Forces Ayews to the Sidelines

All is not well between the Ayew brothers and Black Stars management

All is not well between the Ayew brothers and Black Stars management

Marseille stars Andre Ayew and his brother Jordan have temporarily taken a break from the senior national team, the Black Stars. In two separate letters signed by Andre and Jordan, they outlined various reasons why they need the time off.

As is typical of such events, the immediate reaction is to question the patriotism of the players. Next is to point out how selfish they are, a sentiment punctuated by saying ‘we don’t need them’, ‘they should go’ and so on. As far as I am concerned many of the reactions are emotional and prevent us from seeing the real issues. It’s like the jilted womaniser whose selective amnesia prevents him from acknowledging how his ways have forced his girlfriend to the sidelines.

From the moment Jordan Ayew joined his brother in the Black Stars, it was inevitable that they would be inextricably linked. In the minds of Ghanaians they are identical if not siamese twins. Yet, both players must be looked at differently.

Jordan Ayew was not even invited to the pre-tournament camp with coach Appiah saying he was dropped for ‘footballing reasons‘. For Marseille’s player of the month for November 2012, this was apparently too hard to take causing some psychological trauma.

Many tried to read meaning into Jordan’s exclusion including that Appiah wanted to break up the duo. The reality is that while Jordan’s form has been good for his club he hasn’t quite translated that to club form so perhaps that was excusable. From his letter, it is clear Jordan is saying that he hasn’t been played in a position suitable to replicate that form. In his words, “The reason is that in the position for which my services are required for the national team, I have been ranked way behind several players as not to merit a place in the team on occasions when it mattered.”

Andre Ayew was dropped from the final list of players for the just-held African Cup of Nations by coach Kwesi Appiah effectively because Appiah could not wait for the player to arrive a day or two before the list was submitted. For Appiah it was too great a risk. He would have missed most of the team’s training camp in Abu Dhabi and ultimately Appiah felt that he had good enough replacements. The player had asked for more time to be treated for a hamstring injury by his club doctors who I presume he trusts more than the doctors in Ghana’s camp.  Ayew had allegedly missed previous deadlines given him.

Any professional athlete will tell you that hamstring and groin injuries are some of the most delicate injures to treat. A failure to undergo the right treatment and it can easily become a protracted one. This is the same Ayew who had previously played for Ghana in the 2012 Afcon with a persistent shoulder injury. Some readers might remember him writhing in pain and having his shoulder popped back twice in the game against Guinea.  He shook it off and finished the tournament. Ayew eventually had surgery on that shoulder in March which ended his season prematurely and kept him on the sidelines for three months. The start of this current season was thus difficult for him as he struggled to regain his form. It was that form he brought to play in a few Black Stars matches towards  the end of the year and getting substituted which left him angry.

Andre has undoubtedly been one of Ghana’s most impressive Ghanaian players since 2010. He has impressed with skill but mostly with spirit and determination. He has his frustrating moments when he holds on to the ball longer than he should but he more than makes up for that with his zeal. He is in short, a fighter.

By taking leave, he and his brother who also has a combative (sometimes petulant) streak are doing what they know best. They are fighting a system that took away an opportunity to represent their nation on the biggest African stage. They’ve decided to take on a management whose attitude appears to be that without them the players cannot function or that good to great players can simply be replaced willy nilly.

That attitude is not surprising given that these are the same management team members who justified their taking identical winning bonuses to  players for the 2013 Afcon. We’re increasingly living in a warped Ghanaian world where a sense of entitlement has overtaken one of sacrifice – where elected members of parliament (MPs) view public service as an opportunity to lord it over others rather than serve.

It is an opportunity to claim emoluments rather than make substantial and meaningful changes to the lives of the people who elected them.

So is it any wonder that football administrators see themselves as being as high in the pecking order as the players who sweat, break their backs and sometimes get injured without the necessary protections that professional clubs in Europe provide?

Unless FA officials change their posture and recognize that it is players who play the game and make them look good or bad, this ‘temporary retirement’ gimmick will routinely be used by players as a way of lifting their fists up high in protest whenever they feel victimized.  Or worse, they might shift from deuces to middle finger in the air, Chris Brown style, making the Black Stars a collection of players available rather than the best players Ghana has to offer.

Indeed the Ayews ‘temporary retirement’ as Dede points out continues a trend traceable to other Stars like Michael Essien, KP Boateng and Asamoah Gyan, though the crucial difference is that the earlier cases were precipitated by injury, stress etc rather than FA management decisions .  Credit is of course due the FA for keeping an open door policy which helps ensure that the retirements are in the end truly temporary (eg Asamoah Gyan).  The Ayews’ move  however raises the stakes significantly.

Such heightened stakes could compel the FA members  and team management to make decisions based on principle rather than on a sense of position and power. Ultimately though both players and management have to agree to be more flexible with their different stances always with the progress of the team and interest of the nation in mind.

Too Close for Comfort

Goalkeeper Dauda earned his keep

Goalkeeper Dauda earned his keep against Cape Verde

The Black Stars gave a befuddling performance against Cape Verde’s Blue Sharks as they reached the semi finals for the fourth successive time. Despite the 2-0 win, many Ghanaians’ relief is tempered by a reintroduction of doubt about this team. Having appeared to turn the corner with a stellar 3-0 win against Niger, the Stars reverted to their first game’s form against the Sharks.

Defensively, they seemed confused and were not communicating with each other while offensively they lacked ideas. Ultimately, it might have been experience and luck that carried us through.

When the Black Stars are mentally locked in a game it is easy to tell. Their body language and their actions on the pitch speak louder than anything they say off it. Even though the party line was that they respected Cape Verde and what they could on the pitch, for me their attitude on the pitch showed complacency.

This game against the Blue Sharks is further evidence that these Black Stars will go as far as Captain Asamoah Gyan takes them. When he is engaged, lively and into the matches, the Black Stars are a different team. When he is passive, going through the motions and unfocused, the Black Stars will follow that lead.

Against Niger, Gyan was clearly out to prove something. He was hungry. He was determined. He would not take no for an answer. He was harassing the Nigerian defenders throughout his time on the field and he was lethal. It reminded me of his 2010 World Cup performances in South Africa. Fast forward to the match against Cape Verde and beyond winning the penalty his contribution was minimal.

His attitude translates into how any tactics are applied on the pitch. Defensively and offensively, Gyan is the point person. When he is out of position defensively, play breaks down behind him with passing channels opening up for the opposition like the red sea. Cue Cape Verdean players playing like they had a man advantage against Ghana in the second half.

When Gyan is showing for passes and playing one twos with his midfielders, Ghana has more attacking options and inevitably create more chances. Against Cape Verde, the quick interplay was absent leading to fewer chances. As a result, our midfielders like Kwadwo Asamoah, Christian Atsu and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu were non-factors.

Cape Verde were always going to come out and make the game difficult for Ghana by putting men behind the ball. The surprise was how quickly they transitioned into attack. They were menacing at various moments during the first half and on countless occasions in the second. With more assurance and self belief they would have shocked us.

Despite Cape Verdean ability on the day, the Stars did not make the mental adjustments necessary throughout the game. A coach can offer a game plan for different scenarios and tactics but if the players don’t apply themselves there is little a coach can do.

POSITIVES

There were a few positives in this match. Fatau Dauda was spectacular. His game still needs polishing but his shot stopping ability is in no doubt. He might be modest but there has been nothing understated about his contribution to Ghana’s tournament thusfar. He has literally kept us in the tournament. At 2-2 against DR Congo, he had a stellar save to preserve the draw. Against Cape Verde, flying across the goal and saving with his left hand must be the save of the tournament.  Penalty kick taker, Mubarak Wakaso’s contribution has been clear. He is now joint leading goalscorer after scoring the brace for Ghana. He has arguably been Ghana’s most consistent player in the tournament so far and we hope it continues. That

We are now in the higher stakes part of the competition and the players will have to bring a more consistent energy and focus to their play. Otherwise, our hopes of bringing back the cup will stay in La La land. To that end, having an extra day than they had for the quarter finals to prepare for the semi finals should reinvigorate them.

NO MENAS

Ghana's Christian Atsu scores the second goal against Niger

Christian Atsu 23rd minute strike put Ghana in the driver’s seat

Heading into this game the Black Stars had adopted  the line that this would be the toughest group game. It might well have been had the Nigerians’ goal stood. As it turned out, that disallowed goal melted away any ambition they had.  They were no menace to the Black Stars ambitions of advancing.

Ghana picked a good time to play its best in the tournament. Goals from a revived Asamoah Gyan and Christian Atsu saw the Stars take a 2-0 half time lead. John Boye made it an emphatic win with a scrambled in goal after Gyan’s header was spilled by the Nigerian keeper.

Atsu was officially the man of the match but for me Gyan was the man of the hour. Ahead of the Niger game, there was mounting criticism of his play with some suggesting he should be benched for Emmanuel Clottey. Maligned in one breath, he is deeply appreciated in Kwesi Appiah’s breath. Just as well Appiah remains the coach. Gyan scored with a decisive perhaps angry finish, he assisted on the second and caused the third. His work rate for the 75 minutes he was on the pitch was good. He was aggressive, demonstrative and seemed really into the game. It is my theory that Gyan sometimes needs the prodding that the criticism brings to find his best form. He always manages to silence Ghanaians when his back is against the wall and when criticism is at its highest.

While pressure brings out the best in some, the Afcon stage brought out the fright in youngster Atsu. He is slowly adjusting to the bright lights though like an iris in a dark room.  When he is on his game, he puts so much pressure on a defense. On his goal, he waited until the last moment before passing the ball to Gyan on the left flank. That delay pulled three defenders to Gyan. Atsu’s sudden dash into the box left the defenders for dead. His finish was calm and clinical. That one play summed up why there is so much hope for him. If he can harness the skills, speed and tenacity he showed in this game and produce it every game, Ghana will have discovered that kind of midfield threat we haven’t seen since Abedi Pele. Abedi and now Messi (a player Atsu is being likened to) however play defense and that is a part of his game he will have to develop to reach a World Class level.

Still, he has given coach Appiah a welcome headache as to what to do if Mubarak Wakaso is eligible for the quarter final against Cape Verde. Until then, Ghana is riding high off its most impressive performance to date.

OUT OF TOUCH?

Under-fire Ghana coach says his hands are in the hands of the FA

A year ago, Goran Stevanovic walked into the Ghana Football Association press room a confident man flanked by members of the Association. An assured Kwesi Nyantekyi introduced our next Serbian miracle worker. Stevanovic seemed affable, spoke English (halting but he promised to improve), and brashly proclaimed he was here to get Ghana over the hump. He wanted to end the country’s 30-year drought. He said all the right things about Ghana having plenty talent and the right mix of players. He was eager to surpass his Serbian predecessors. Ghanaians hung onto his words like they do to those of a priest on Sunday espousing the prosperity doctrine.

We had been to the final of the African Cup of Nations and the quarter finals of the World Cup the previous year so there was evidence that he could. We all could envision the kind of lift a Cup would bring. We needed to believe him. It was our escape and it became our obsession particularly as some traditional giants failed to even get to the CAN.

Fast forward a year and the scene could not be any more different. Fresh off the failure in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, here Plavi was leaning on assistant Kwasi Appiah like he was a crutch; Appiah suddenly turning interpreter for some questions. A once triumphant Nyantekyi also seemed subdued, resigned to a coach’s demise.

An already tense room became inflamed at the suggestion by the coach that he didn’t promise to resign if the Black Stars didn’t bring the Cup back. To be fair, listening to the clip he has a point. No matter. A coach with two losses over 18 matches has his head on the chopping block.

Before that, the GFA announced they were deferring the decision on the coach for two weeks pending consultation with its legal team. This was hardly a vote of confidence. In between there were apologies by the coach and the FA to Ghanaians for the team’s failure.

It’s been two weeks since Ghana exited the Cup of Nations. Fourteen days to let people’s emotions simmer down and reasoned judgments about the team take over. If Ghanaian journalists represent the mood of the country, then we are really, really MAD. We are angry at not winning the 2012 cup.We are upset about seemingly empty promises, and perhaps most of all, we are insulted because we feel we’re being lied to. But why are we so mad?

What happened between his appointment and now for there to be such open hostility towards him. There were shouts of ‘tsssooooo boooiiii’ at one stage as if one were going to war. Where did the negative feelings emanate from?

MODESTY

It has to do with the increasing cynicism that permeates many aspects of our society. It is manifested especially towards people in authority and intensifies as the reliable supply of basic amenities like water and electricity elude many. Football had all this while been our refuge, the place where we go to see Ghanaians excel, our center for excellence.

Plavi promised like an African politician and failed like one. His apology to the public seemed like someone saying what he wanted us to hear and it made us mad.

Despite criticisms of negative tactics, Milovan Rajevac endeared himself to Ghanaians. He was modest in everything he did. Rajevac lived here and his preference for track suits suggested a plain manner. He seemed shy, humble, he under promised and over delivered. He related to his players well and did not seem vindictive giving players like Sulley Muntari second chances when they acted out of turn.

Alhaji Grunsah may have stolen the show when he took the floor and pleaded with the coach to stay in Ghana. As only he could, he said, ‘when you’re an employee of UTC, you don’t spend more time at GNTC.’ He implored Plavi to spend more time in Ghana and work for the Ghanaian people. Visit local league centers, scout players, unearth talent was the cry.

If Plavi stays, which looks increasingly unlikely, he’ll do well to heed Grunsah’s advice for it’ll allow him to learn more about our football the culture in which it is played and the people who live by it. That knowledge will go a long way to inform his tactics and prevent him frombeing out of touch.

Raining Black Stars

African players model new Puma kit (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images for Puma)

Puma unveiled the Black Stars’ new kit a little more than a week ago. Asamoah ‘Baby Jet’ Gyan was among the stars from the continent who rocked their respective countries’ new gear;  Yaya Toure was there to represent Cote d’ Ivoire, Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon and Steven Pienaar, South Africa, to name a few.

Puma’s Creative Africa Network were responsible for the designs with local artists representing the countries taking part. Inviting local artists to participate in the design process was a novel approach to conceiving the national kits of the countries Puma sponsors. The results stuck closely to the most recent Puma templates for jerseys while including the artist’s personal touch.

Ghana's Godfried Donkor (5th Right to Left) chose the theme, 'Raining Black Stars' for his design (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images for Puma)

Ghana’s was designed by Godfried Donkor, a ‘fine artist’ by profession and a passionate supporter of the Black Stars. I spoke to ‘the man, the myth, the soon to be legend’ two days ago about his inspiration for the design, his sudden fame and the final product.

As a kid in Africa, the dream is to become the next Abedi Pele, Roger Milla, Rabah Madjer … Michael Essien, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and the list goes on.  In a few years, young artists may look to Puma’s initiative and want to become the next Godfried Donkor. So, did Donkor ever dream something like this could happen to him when he was a kid?

“No, even last year up until I got the call I would never have imagined it,” he says. “When we launched it last week that’s when it really dawned on me how big the project was and it’s been an amazing response.”

A native of Kumasi, Donkor left Ghana when he was eight but visits regularly – in some years as often as twice. The London resident says the congratulatory calls have not stopped: from relatives to people he’s lost touch with over the years.

He is merely reaping the rewards of the hard work he’s put in together with the Puma design team over a year and a half to come up with the Home kit. A few weeks before the 2010 World Cup he was approached by Puma representatives to work on the new design. Two weeks after he was asked, he settled on the theme ‘raining Black Stars,’ and submitted designs to reflect that idea. After much back and forth, we have a jersey.  “In the end I was happy with the final design,” he says, satisfied.

Ghana's new jersey (R in the trio of tops) has more stars than before and includes red, gold and green stars

Donkor adds, “I went back to all the memories I had of watching the great Ghana teams from the Abedi Pele era, more recently from the U-20 team and then this team which did so well in the World Cup,” to draw inspiration for the design. He also researched the jerseys the team has won since the ’50s in order to come up with something that would fit in the ever evolving look and feel of a Black Stars jersey. “The way they [2010 Black Stars] played without fear was one of the inspirations as well.”

If he had to do it all again, he would without hesitating. And if he had the power, he would make the stars on the jersey even darker. For that to happen though, FIFA’s rules would have to be broken. Given the fine levied against Puma and the Cameroon Football Federation in the past for a fashion faux-pas, that ain’t happening anytime soon.

For more on Donkor’s design, watch the video below.

THERE IS NO GROUP OF DEATH

No group of death but some countries will be composing dirges early!

The 2012 Cup of Nations draw went ahead over a week ago – ages now with our short attention spans – and now all the 16 participating teams know which lane they’ve been assigned. The allocations are below.

Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Senegal, Zambia (Bata)

Group B: Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola (Malabo)

Group C: Gabon, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia (Libreville)

Group D: Ghana, Botswana, Mali and Guinea (Franceville)

Before a draw of this kind, a favorite pastime for many is to prepare to name the dreaded ‘Group of Death’ and of course to endlessly speculate on the favorites. After the draw, the debate intensifies with mucho airtime and ink devoted to deciding once and for all who will win and who has the toughest group.

It is as though we NEED a group of death so badly that even when there is none we force it. That is how I felt when I looked at my twitter feed and some websites that often exclusively reveal stuff (even as the whole world knows it already).

Ladies and gentleman, THERE IS NO GROUP OF DEATH.

The word that was dominant in my mind when I looked at the draw was ‘balance.’ I thought this draw was as balanced as I’ve ever seen. Every team will look at their groups and say to themselves, ‘with the right amount of dedication, organization and good fortune we could go to the second round and possibly beyond.’ Well, almost everyone. The co-hosts, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea must be kicking themselves thinking we are spending all this money for this?!!! Then again, good hosts rarely have fun at their events anyways, saddled with the constant fretting and troubleshooting. Don’t believe me? Try hosting a dinner party.

Still, the advantage of playing at home should not be discounted. Equatorial Guinea and Gabon will have some good opportunities to qualify but if I were betting I’d bet against them getting out of the first round.

Few would wager against the Black Stars and Cote d’ Ivoire’s Elephants coming out of their groups. In fact, Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire constantly pop up as potential winners – Ghana by virtue of a stellar 2010, Cote d’ Ivoire because of their collective of stars, Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho to name a few. I’d add Senegal to that group. A deadly strike force and the emergence of young players should make their opponents’ nervous.

When I think of Senegal’s strikers I break into a cold sweat and want to bang my head against a wall lamenting why we can’t even get two more strikers equal or better than Asamoah Gyan and why Emmanuel Adebayor who seemingly spends more of his downtime in Ghana than anywhere else wasn’t convinced to play for Ghana. Aaaarrrrgggghhhhh. Can you imagine the possibilities? Multiple Azontos every match I tell you. Sigh. Having said aaalllllllll of that, Senegal still have to prove it in a tournament setting.

Add the North Africans – Morocco, Tunisia-  who are typically formidable come tournament time and the tournament might be the most open we will have for a while.

The tournament awaits us all.

A BORE (YAWN) DRAW

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.

SHOULD WE BE WORRIED?

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.