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 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.

Stars Focused on Swazi Task: Wednesday Night Edition

Kwadwo Asamoah Could be Key to Unlock the Swazi Defense

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.

Transfer Deadline Day and Black Stars

Shedding tears after a loss is one thing but Turkey? Say it ain't so Baby Jet. Photo Credit: Senyuiedzorm Adadevoh

The European transfer day deadline has come and gone with only one Black Star making a move on the day. Almighty “Prince of Goals”Tagoe moved from Hoffenheim to Bursaspor on a three year deal. Widely expected to move, Sulley Muntari stayed at Inter Milan. Milan must be really hard to leave or he knows something we don’t about playing time there.

A frenzy was generated by a rumor that Black Stars striker Asamoah Gyan was moving from the Northeast of England to where? Turkey? Noooooo way!!!! The rumors suggested it was to no less a club than Galatasaray, one of Turkey’s biggest. While they could probably afford it why would a top player consider Turkish football at such a turbulent time? I forgot. It’s all about the money. Cha Ching!

By the time some reports mentioned Gyan had handed in a transfer request, which was then refuted by the player himself with a classic “are they liars too?”quote when told the BBC reported it, my head was spinning. In these dealings it is clear all parties like to ‘manage’ information so sometimes you have to believe everyone and no one at all. In the final analysis, nothing came of it and I’m glad. I get to watch Baby Jet play regularly in England until January when he leaves for the Cup of Nations and then after. Back on and on. Oh and he’s joined by a player who is how should I put it, as self-assured as they come, Nicklas Bendtner. Perhaps Bendtner can fill the shoes of Danny Welbeck whose presence at Sunderland in my opinion helped Gyan a great deal.

Prior to this activity, Anthony Annan had quietly moved to Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch League. Let’s hope he gets more games than he did at Schalke where a change in coach shortly after he got there as well as niggling injuries limited his opportunities.

Moving forward, the most important thing for Black Stars players is to get playing time going into January. So while some may scratch their heads upon hearing a transfer like Dominic Adiyiah moving to the Turkish second division (I admit I scratched my bald patch so hard I developed sores), it is important that he plays often to get into the rhythm of playing.

That’s why it is good to see that of all the players invited to camp for the games against Swaziland and Brazil, only a few are not regulars. Let’s hope it stays that way.