Football

Preview: Ghana, Equatorial Guinea

When one defies the odds to reach the semi-final in continental football, never mind if it came through the assistance of a referee who has since touched down in the holiday resort of Mauritius, one has every right to dream and believe.

Yes, the host nation is believing and dreaming of upsetting the apple cards when they take on four-time champions Ghana in the semi-final of the 2015 African Cup of Nations at the Estadio de Malabo at 19:00GMT on Thursday.

How fate works! That a side which initially had nothing to do with this competition, are only two results away from being crowned champions is thoroughly inspiring.

After being disqualified in the qualifying phase, there were many Equatorial Guinean players who would have been minding their own business until the unexpected happened.

For “Ebola” reasons, original hosts Morocco pulled out putting the whole tourney in limbo. The reasons why they pulled out may not be important at this point but for the new hosts and semi-finalists, there is a lot to celebrate.

Only two stadia of competitive stature were available prior to Morocco pulling out of hosting the tournament. The Estadio de Bata and Malabo were venues of the joint hosting of this same tournament only three years ago. Bhoy de Ebebiyin and Mongomo, the other venues for the CAN 2015 have done a great job.

5,000 and 10,000 capacity stadia respectively, the organizers only just got the place ready for the games. You would have to give the guys in there a lot of credit for pulling this one off.

Well done to them but for all the host have put in staging the CAN, it definitely does not come any bigger than this when they line up against perennial semi-finalists Ghana at the Estadio de Malabo on Thursday.

TEAM NZALANG NATIONALE

A draw in their first two games against Congo-Brazzaville and Burkina Faso got even the most passionate supporter of the Nzalang Nationale wondering whether the side would replicate their exploits of 2012 when they made it to the quarters. A morale boosting victory against neighbours Gabon raised their confidence a notch higher and got them believing that three more results could lead them to their maiden AFCON trophy. And why not? The sport on the continent has moved on from the days when a few nations made it their own. The likes of Ghana, Egypt, Cameroon, Congo-Kinshasa and Nigeria have won the competition twenty times between them leaving a few nations to struggle for honours.

I recall a presser by the South African Minister of Sports and Recreation Fikile Mbabula at their Hotel Mongomo base where he attempted to spite the hosts for cajoling players from the globe over to represent them after doling out some juicy offers to them.

Unfair as it may sound, we have seen this happen in other jurisdictions with no one really raising any complaints. Bahrain is attracting top Kenyan athletes to compete for them with offers too difficult to refuse. Indeed my understanding is that some of the players representing the Equato-Guineans at the CAN are making as much as over € 5,000.00 for every game they play. With the honour and pride that comes with winning the AFCON, this could pale into insignificance should they go all the way.

It was always going to be a big ask for the hosts if they made their way through the group phase and came up against some of the continents big boys. 2004 champions Tunisia were up next for them in the quarter finals. Thought it was played in such good spirits and high tempo, referee Seechurn from Mauritius tried to make himself more famous than the first gentleman of the land, His Excellency Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo by awarding one of the most outrageous penalties I have seen in my lifetime. Javier Balbo stepped up and converted the spot kick with such calmness and his strike in extra time only justified his legendary status in this oil rich nation.

They have since been talking big about upsetting the apple cards and why wouldn’t they? At their presser a few minutes ago, Coach Esteban Bekker was confident of yet another victory at the CAN if only his boys up their game against their more illustrious and experienced opponents.

Goalkeeper Filipe Ovono and the likes of Javier Balboa, Emiliano Nsue,  Sipo and Ivan Bolado have showed guts, tenacity, belief and a sense of camaraderie that have seen them make it this far.

For what they lack in quality, the above mentioned traits and occasional biases from the match officials and the 15,000 sold out crowd at the stadium have made up for it.

They would surely be fancying their chances against Ghana. Can they hold their nerve?

TEAM GHANA

Ghana would surely go into the game as favorites after a shaky start to the tournament losing their opener to Senegal. How they have recovered since then with three consecutive wins against highly tipped Algeria, South Africa and Guinea still remains a mystery.

That all important strike by skipper Asamoah Gyan in injury time against the Dessert Warriors seem to have turned their fortunes around so much so that even with twenty minutes to go against the Bafana Bafana in the final round of group games, one got the feeling that the Stars still had enough in their arsenal to mount a comeback. That they did brilliantly to overturn the scoreline.

The quarter-final against Guinea would be remembered for three major things. The performance of Kwesi Appiah, Christian Atsu’s wonder goal and the injury to skipper Asamoah Gyan. Great performance by all standards as they finally unleashed a performance worthy of note by the crowd and the Press.

Who would not want another dose of such Ghanaian finesse and panache on Thursday? At this point though it is fair to say that skipper Yaw Asamoah Gyan may not be available for selection after that poor tackle from Guinean goalie Naby Yattara.

You would want to go into a game like this with your entire arsenal but this would also be another great opportunity for someone to step up and take his chance. Kwesi Appiah has clearly shown that and it would be interesting to see who gets the nod if Gyan cannot play. This is an opportunity for someone to earn his wages.

Coach Avram Grant has altered his starting X1 in all four games and there is every chance of an alteration in the 5th game which would not be surprising. You have to say he has exceeded expectations back home in Ghana and beyond as not too many people gave the side a chance of making this far.

PSYCHOLOGICAL TWIST

In the face of all this though, there is a psychological twist to the game. The side has failed to win three of their four fifth games at the last tournaments. It is their fifth consecutive fifth game in the tournament and they hope to make it to the final.

The FA president Kwesi Nyantekyi told the world at Tuesday’s presser that everything had been put in place to overcome this psychological twist. Management Committee boss George Afriyie could not have summed it any better.

“I do not believe that something spiritual or psychological is the problem. These guys are professionals of the highest order and they would approach the game as such. I believe in my faith and I am confident we can overturn this tide.”

When Andre Dede Ayew emerges out of the tunnel with his charges should skipper Asamoah Gyan not be available for selection, a passionate football nation(Ghana) would be waiting with baited breathe desperate for a result and a place in the showpiece final against either Congo-Kinshasa or 1992 champions La Cote D’ivoire. Can the Stars make us proud? You know who I would be rooting for on Thirsday, don’t you?

Tags: