It is match day two in the African qualification series for outright rights to represent the continent in Russia come 2018 and the heat is increasingly gearing up. South Africa come up against Senegal, Nigeria play host to Algeria and Morocco lock horns with Ivory Coast on a weekend of tantalizingly mouth-watering match ups with some of the Africa’s finest players pitching their wits against each other. But all eyes will be at the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria where the Pharaohs of Egypt welcome the Black Stars of Ghana in what is arguably a grudge match.
En route to sealing a third straight qualification for the world cup, the Stars were pitched against the Pharaohs in the last hurdle of qualification in a two-legged tie breaker. And in the 1st leg, the Stars delivered arguably their most complete performance we have seen in a while pummeling Egypt into submission with a 6-1 rout ensuring the Pharaohs’ 2-1 victory in the return encounter was as inconsequential as it gets as the Stars strolled their way to Brazil. That stunning battering of Egypt in Kumasi left a sour taste in the mouths of the North African behemoths and the specter of that ignominious defeat still lingers on.
However in Alexandria on Sunday, the Pharaohs can do to the Stars what the Stars did to them two years ago and what a way to exact revenge it will be for the Pharaohs as victory over the Stars could put Egypt in pole position to pick the sole ticket in group E even as early as matchday two. Revenge after all, is a dish best served cold and the Stars could be on the wrong side of that famous cliché if results and performances in recent times are not improved upon markedly on Sunday.
Talk of a mini crisis after the dour stalemate against Uganda and the subsequent 1-1 draw with South Africa few days later seemed premature. But what doesn’t is the languid and tepid performances that have been served up by the Stars in the run of 4 winless games which has seen Avram Grant’s charges score just a solitary goal in that ongoing rot. Some local pundits opine that things are being blown out of proportion and on the surface, it might not be far-fetched.
After all in that so-called current 4 game winless streak, it is the game against the Cranes of Uganda that had any serious level of competitiveness with it. The 1-1 deadlock against Rwanda on the last day of qualification for AFCON 2017 was a dead rubber in itself. Ghana had already sealed qualification and the stand-off between the GFA and the Ministry of you and Sports prior to the game grabbed the headlines and ensured the game had close to little or no media attention with the game even played in a virtually empty stadium.
Speak of the game against Russia which the Stars lost 1-0 of course and the further 1-1 stalemate with the Bafana Bafana and you have a couple of international friendlies which did not really cause any serious alarm.
But the manner in which those results and performances are threatening to creep into the business end of the qualifiers is what is really leaving all of us fazed and if such level of nonchalance and lethargy-that was at an all-time high against the Cranes- is not quickly arrested, the qualification campaign could end for the Stars before it had even began. And against the Pharaohs, there is work to be done. Egypt themselves are almost nearing the pinnacle of continental football again after few years of languishing in the doldrums with the turmoil and the tumultuous occurrences in the North African nation affecting their football adversely.
They make their return to the AFCON next year for the first time since winning it in Angola in 2010 and interestingly at the expense of Ghana. With a new generation of some exciting and young talents in their ranks, a giant has been awoken and they are not planning to be knocked off their perch again anytime soon and that should be ominous enough for the Black Stars. Hector Cuper and his charges have been talking up the prospect of clinching maximum points against Ghana to boost their qualification chances and with motivation seemingly aplenty for the Pharaohs, the Stars seem to have a really uphill task at hand and if caution is not thrown to the wind, Grant and his charges could be in for some baptism of fire not least from an expectedly hostile and antagonistic crowd in Alexandria. So how do we go about navigating this tough hurdle?
Grant named his squad for the game to mixed reviews from fans and pundits alike and it was as expected. Talismanic captain,Gyan is missing yet again and his regular no-show for the Stars in recent times is proving to be quite disconcerting. But on a more positive side, second-in-command Ayew returns to the squad after his injury layoff and having being unable to play more than 60 minutes in a game for Westham after his injury, therein lies the lingering concern about Ayew’s readiness and whether he is in optimum condition enough to start the game or even come on later as a sub. Grant has some pondering to do concerning his vice-captain. Though Gyan’s absence represents a huge blow but the presence of the likes of the inform Atsu, the returning Ayew and the supporting cast of Acheammpong and Jordan should mean the Stars still possess enough firepower to compete.
The other mainstays in Grant’s preferred eleven should all have their places against Egypt come Sunday. In goal, Razak Braimah quite astonishingly still gets the nod even though Adam Kwarasey has returned from his self-imposed exile. Braimah looks shoo-in to continue as first choice at least for this game. Now, the back four should really be up and doing in this game as the Pharaohs will be seeking to take the game to the Stars and quickly unsettle us. How the likes of Afful, Baba Rahman and the expected defensive pair of Jonathan Mensah and John Boye acquit and compose themselves in the initial stages of the game could prove pivotal in the Stars picking points from this game as the Egyptians will be expectedly coming out all guns blazing. And then there is the midfield.
It is the area of our game that has been uninspiring the most recently and Grant should be scratching his head as to how to find an inspiration, a metronome who will pull the strings in midfield. It is times like these that Kwadwo Asamoah’s continuous absence for the Stars feels like an unhealed wound. The playmaker arguably is Ghana’s best midfielder and the fact that he is yet to appear under Grant is rather regrettable. The likes of Agyemang Badu, Wakaso and Afriyie Acquah for all their brilliance under Grant are not cut in such playmaking mould and against Egypt, such inspiration has got to come from somewhere if the Stars are going to avoid defeat.
It is the first installment of subsequent games against Egypt as hostilities will be renewed yet again in the AFCON next year. Bu in the here and now, the ramifications could be unspeakable for Ghana should Egypt come out tops on Sunday. If anything is as crucial and imperative for the Stars, this is it. Victory for the Pharaohs will move them to 6 points leaving us still stuck at 1 and not forgetting the other group encounter between Congo and Uganda meaning victory for either of the two could even see them leapfrog Ghana on the standings if the Stars fail to beat their North African hosts. What it might simply imply is that, the Stars desperately need to avoid defeat to still have a realistic chance of qualifying.
A defeat will hand the initiative to Egypt going into matchday three and it is a scenario we will all not want to entertain. The Stars have been known for coming to the party big time against the big boys and in this current dismal run of 4 winless games and a single goal scored in that period, Grant and his charges have the uphill task of picking points against familiar foes and for all of our sakes, we can only hope the Stars glitter under the floodlights in Alexandria.
By: Enoch Andoh-Mensah