It cannot all be gloom and glum can it? After all qualification was sealed quite comfortably even before a ball was kicked against Egypt and at least for what it was worth, it was a quite improved second half performance from the Stars. Ghana lost out by 1-0 to Egypt in the climaxing of the group stages for the AFCON in a game which was a very good exercise as far as Grant’s decision to try a host of the fringe players was concerned. And a few points which were made glaringly clear in the Stars game is also worth talking about, points which this writer will seek to hammer home consequently.
First off, qualification as we all know had already been sealed before the game. There was not going to be any last-minute jitters where the Stars would have needed to punch above their weight to pick a result from the game come hell or high water. And so when the team sheets came out, it was not surprising to see at all that Grant had ringed some changes from his preferred starting pack. It was not in the least farfetched that Grant made 4 changes to the starting XI which had done the job and wrapped up qualification already and for that, I say hats-off to Grant.
The likes of Frank Achaempong, Wakaso, Jordan Ayew and Thomas Partey all made way for Jonathan Mensah, Andy Yiadom, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Samuel Tetteh to make their AFCON 2017 bow. The idea was unequivocal: Grant wanted to allow some of the fringe players to have minutes under their belt and explore his options beyond the starting XI without having to cede dominance to Egypt. It was supposed to work to perfection with as Amartey and Agyemang-Badu were expected to offer the needed power in midfield to secure the base for the Stars to at least pick a point in the game which would have sealed top spot. But all of the plans put in motion began to go awry when John Boye conceded a really sloppy foul on the edge of the Ghana box inside just 10 minutes of the game.
Local pundits and fans hadpredicted going into the start of the tourney that the Jonathan Mensah-John Boye combo-which took Ghana all the way to winning silver two years ago in Equatorial Guinea- would be reprised in Gabon. When Ghana opened their account with Amartey lining up alongside Boye, it left a lot to be wondered and pondered and those concerns did not seem implausible at all. After all, this was not a tried and tested partnership with the duo having not really played among themselves to establish enough rapport and camaraderie on the field of play and in a huge tournament as such, it was some source of concern. But after the opening two games, all of the lingering doubts were quashed and for some good measure.
Now back to the substantive issue. John Boye, as said earlier gave away a really needless freekick after just 10 minutes of action, in an incident which encapsulated the Stars struggles at the back in the first half especially. Jonathan Mensah’s inactivity at club level has made the once reliable rock a pale shadow of his former self as he struggled a great deal in the first half with Boye having to save his blushes at varying points in the game. Mohammed Salah of course would convert the free kick with a venomous strike into the far left top corner which turned out to be the only goal of the night. It was not a pleasing first half performance overall.
Whiles the defence looked quite sloppy and unsteady, the midfield struggled to get going and the likes of Gyan, Atsuand Dede were left chasing shadows. The only bright spot in the Stars’ first half would be the performance of Samuel Tetteh who looked like impressing his way into the thoughts of Grant. He was light years ahead of his teammates as he was not overawed by the occasion as he looked to always keep possession and take out his man whenever he had the ball at those precocious feet.
Gyan would later depart with a knock (he should be fit and firing in time to face DR Congo) and Jordan came on in his place culminating in a very much improved performance in the second half. The Stars have been berated for their inability to complete a full throttle impressive game at Gabon with the penchant of impressing in the first half only to wither away in the second. But against Egypt, the tide seemed to have reversed. Now, the second half was a marked improvement from the first and a far cry from what we saw from some of the players earlier.
Andy Yiadom, making his Ghana bow was quite decent and immense at right back and on the evidence of what he gave needs to be having minutes under his belt to ease into his adaptation of the African game. The partnership of Jordan and Tetteh in the second half gave a glimpse into the not too distant future and it looked like the glimpse was worth it. Bernard Tekpetey, another new kid on the block made his bow as well with a quite promising few minutes of his own and though the Stars could not pull parity ultimately, the exercise was a good one overall, one which would have delighted Grant in the least and it looks certain that he would not be concentrating on the defeat but the performances of some of the young talents and fringe players especially in the second half.
And now we are finally here, the business end. The loss to Egypt meant Ghana finished as runners-up in Group D and meet DR Congo, who finished as winners of group C in the quarterfinals. The Leopards are a really formidable side and after impressively topping a group which also had Ivory Coast and Morocco, are looking like the real deal. But the Stars have no cause not to be bullish about their own chances. Ghana traditionally leaves their best performances for the latter stages of competitions and I bet the DRC will harbor genuine fears of having to face one of the pre-tournament favourites, and a formidable one at such.
So as it turns out, the defeat to Egypt was not as bad as some sections of the Ghanaian populace are making it out to be. The defeat, though yet another psychological blow to the Ghanaian pride as far as the rivalry with the Pharaohs is concerned cannot be deemed as a failure of any sort. A draw or victory would have seen Ghana line up against Harve Renard and his Morocco side and when you have the prospect to avoiding the manager who won gold at your expense two years ago, it is anything but dreadful.
The Stars can take another giant step towards ending the long agonizing AFCON drought with victory over the Leopards of DR Congo and though it might not be all plain-sailing, it could be the renewal of the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation. One foot in front of the other, Black Stars of Ghana.