AFCON 2015 Final Match Preview: Ghana vs. Ivory Coast

If Avram Grant can win an AFCON, so can I. And so can you. All you have to do is trek off to Primark, or a local store which sells a half-decent polo shirt, be the sort of person who doesn’t do anything particularly stupid, and be a prolific networker.

Oh, and to add a bit of fun into the job, you can load up Football Manager and search for a light-skinned, foreign-born Ghanaian playing in a relatively obscure league to include in the squad to give off the impression that you’re a Ghanaian football anorak. Grant’s search on Football Manager in early December did just that, generating Crystal Palace striker Kwesi Appiah, who is on loan at Cambridge United.

I like to think of myself as a well-reasoned and, as Tanzania are too rubbish to qualify for an AFCON, wholly unbiased football writer, so I’ve tried really, really, really hard to be impartial and find the virtues of the former Chelsea manager. I’ve had all the time in the world to decipher on his merits yet I can’t think of any. The system is the same, the players are largely the same, and so is the style of football.

On the contrary, if you remain blind you get left behind. And I sensed I was probably letting my raging dislike of Grant’s over-promotion getting in the way of some undeniable facts. So Uncle Salim asked some Ghanaians what difference he had made and their answers were alright, with the standouts ranging from “he’s given nearly all outfield players a chance” to “he’s been a father figure” to “he’s got the right blend of hard work and talent in the squad”.

The former two reasons are nice, good-guy ones in this sorry, soulless, miserable world, yes, but nothing a Les Reed or a Gary Megson couldn’t muster if put in the same position. And as for hitting the sweet spot of talent and hard work in terms of squad selection, Ghana’s recent AFCON results, disruptive influences or not, have largely been steady, as I will elaborate below.

In truth, Grant has changed little, and maybe that is his biggest strength. Just under seven years ago, when Grant was on the brink of lifting the Champions League with Chelsea and his senior players were hesitant in giving him any credit, the suggestion that he was an auto-pilot manager was rife.

“I could come like an elephant in a shop and break everything,” Grant would counter. “But one big, big man told me something, he said that more than to know what to change you need to know what not to change.”

If that is the case, then that raises a question: can a team win a tournament in spite of their coach rather than because of him? If you’re an acolyte of the Soccernomics theory that coaches don’t matter that much, then the evidence suggests that much of the credit must go to the players rather than the coach, and if Grant wins on Sunday night he will be the pluperfect case study.

Because this is what Ghana do, and perhaps all Grant has done is inherit one of Africa’s most fine-tuned teams at the right time and auto-pilot them. In the last four Cup of Nations the Black Stars have either reached the final or semi-final merely by sleepwaking for the most part. If even under Grant’s workaday predecessor Kwesi Appiah they managed to reach that default stage, you begin to understand that this team is almost immune to the cut-throat nature of tournament football before the semis, regardless of the identity and experience of the man in charge.

As ever, the performances have been professional rather than phenomenal. Placed in Group C, the official group of death, an opening game defeat to Senegal raised serious questions about Grant’s credentials, particularly the Israeli’s funereal air when, in fairness, it is just his usual aura. But the Black Stars have fought back well, winning four games on the trot; topping Group C and making it into the final with ease.

The knockout rounds have been kinder, facing a Guinea team besieged by injuries in defence and an Equatorial Guinea they had infinitely more class than, in quality and in manners. Christian Atsu and Andre Ayew will get the credit for their attacking play, but John Boye has been equally impressive in defence since starting against South Africa, as have trusted foot soldiers in the shape of Afriyie Acquah and Mubarak Wakaso.

If Grant has been nothing more than an auto-pilot, safe-pair-of-hands effigy, Herve Renard has been the polar opposite. The 2012 AFCON-winning coach has operated forensic mental and physical surgery to the Ivory Coast team.  Their transformation from a team that jetted into Equatorial Guinea with a defensive rubble – the leakiest out of all the qualifiers – to the most tactically savvy, well-structured team in the tournament has been nigh extra-terrestrial, insofar that some have pondered what could have been had Renard been in charge at the World Cup rather than Sabri Lamouchi.

Renard himself, sporting that lucky, whiter-than-white shirt along with a tough-talking, success-or-nothing rhetoric, and a life-affirming smile that makes you believe that every little thing is going to be alright, will fit nicely into the narrative fallacies written in the run up to this final.

If you cut the narrative fallacies and stick to pure football, which you should because it’s just background noise, Renard has, above all, reintroduced the defensive discipline not too dissimilar to that which saw the Elephants reach the final three years ago under the management of Francois Zahoui.

Back then, Zahoui made even atheists pray to God when a defence that included Kolo Toure and Sol Bamba at its core, and a makeshift right-back in Jean-Jacques Gosso, didn’t concede a single goal in six matches only to lose to Renard’s Zambia on penalties. Similarly to the tenure of Zahoui, the mindset has been the same: remain defensively solid and the oomph we possess in attacking areas will see us through.

And so far the quality has been pivotal, with sheer match-winning quality conjured and the productive punishment of opponent’s mistakes. The back door is not entirely shut, with only one clean sheet recorded during this tournament, therefore Ivory Coast still have to outscore opponents rather than utterly trust their system to keep them at bay. But it also isn’t quite open-all-hours thanks to additional protection in the system, and the graft of understated names such as Wilfried Kanon, Serey Die and Max Gradel have made it a well-executed, cohesive operation so far.

Such was the severity of Ivory Coast’s problems in defence that you’d have been nothing more than a polemicist if you predicted they would go on to win this AFCON pre-tournament, and predicted that they would beat the much-fancied duo of Cameroon and Algeria during the process. It was simply unforeseeable, especially after sluggish displays against Guinea and Mali in the group stages.

Ghana, for all the pre-tournament negativity, including the various SFG members and affiliates that predicted a group stage exit, were always expected to be there or thereabouts as long as Grant didn’t ruin anything; the semi-finals has become their lowest expectation after all.

The issue was, and still is, that Grant is such an average manager that you don’t know what exactly he brings to the table. If Grant wins AFCON it will be, to quote the doyen of African football Lotfi Oluwada, “an ode to mediocrity.” Or you could look at it from another angle: each and every one of us, assuming we own a polo shirt and are humble enough to auto-pilot rather than ‘break everything’, will be a winner.

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