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.

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.

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.