The Black Stars arrive in Equatorial Guinea after a disappointing 2014. They may be happy to be there, but that says more about the difficulties they had en route to the Cup of Nations than the form they are in.
In the immediate past, though they suffered only one defeat in their six qualifying matches, theirs was a distinctly uninspiring campaign, failing to beat Uganda in either match and also drawing against Guinea in neutral Morocco. It ultimately saw off two coaches, beginning with Kwesi Appiah in September after two years in charge, and then caretaker boss Maxwell Konadu, who failed to win away from home.
But overshadowing this is the enormous disappointment of the 2014 World Cup. It started badly with the late defeat to the USA, which immediately made qualifying very difficult, and despite a battling draw against Germany, a second late defeat to Portugal eliminated them at the group stage for the first time. What made this particularly galling was the winnable nature of the group (despite being drawn with the future world champions), the conservative tactics of Appiah and the off-field bust-ups that have left Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari out of the picture again.
Avram Grant takes over after a long, drawn-out appointment process. The task the former Israel and Chelsea manager has been charged with is not only winning matches, but also restoring pride and confidence in the Ghana team and making them opponents to be feared once again. The tough group they face will not help his cause.
It’s hard to know exactly how Ghana are going to play under a manager who won’t have taken charge of the team for a competitive game by the start of the tournament, but it seems unlikely they will deviate far from the style in which they were playing in the qualifying matches. At home, their seven goals scored in three games suggests more attacking tactics than on the road, where they scored just four, three of which came in one game against Togo, the last match under Kwesi Appiah. With little flair in the team, expect Avram to keep it conservative in this tournament.
Experience and youth – Look down the list of Ghanaian players in the most recent squads and you will notice their relative youth. Even captain Asamoah Gyan, who played, who playedin the 2006 World Cup, is still only 29, while the majority of the star names in the side are around 23 or 24. And yet despite this, many of these players already have in excess of 20-30 caps; Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Andre Ayew, who both turned 24 in December, have 57 caps each, one fewer than Michael Essien at 32. This is one of the legacies of the 2009 U20 World Cup win; this team has time and energy on its side.
The defence – Despite a recent history of producing good defensively-minded central midfielders and relatively conservative tactics, defending has been a problem for Ghana in recent years. This is mainly due to the lack of depth, particularly at full-back; Kwadwo Asamoah, who misses this tournament due to injury, has spent much of the last couple of years filling in at left-back despite being the team’s most talented midfielder. However, Augsburg youngster Baba Rahman seems to developing into a fine solution to that problem. Jonathan Mensah and John Boye are the established centre-back pairing but there’s no one with experience behind them.
Andre Ayew – Asamoah Gyan might be the spiritual leader and perennial saviour of this team, but the elder Ayew is Ghana’s most talented player. As he demonstrated during the World Cup, on his day he is one of the best attackers in Africa, but often drifts out of games too. He is the main creative force and will also be expected to support the strikers with the odd goal.
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Baba Rahman – A welcomed solution to the left-back problem which had been troubling Ghanaian football for sometime, the rise to prominence of Augsburg’s Baba Rahman means they can stop worrying about a part of their defence. Asamoah’s injury for this tournament gives Rahman his chance to show what he can do, although he was already a regular in qualifying, one of the few positives from the campaign for the Black Stars.
Avram Grant – The butt of so many relegation-based jokes in England, it’s easy to forget Avram has managed in international football before, and did relatively well. From 2002 to 2005, he was manager of Israel, achieving the best win record since the 1970s. However, in this situation he was considered a disappointingly conservative appointment, with the Ghanaian FA falling back on an established foreigner rather than a home-grown talent.
Quarter-finalists – Despite the tough group and mediocre form, its hard to believe they won’t qualify for the knockout stages, as they are generally difficult to beat and that won’t change under Avram. However, with a tough draw, that may be the limit this time.