Words by Theo Sakyi
Ghana kicked off their 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualification journey in style when they steamrolled Ethiopia, putting five goals past them at home in the summer of 2017.
It was Kwesi Appiah’s first competitive fixture in his second stint as Black Stars manager after replacing the dour, uninspiring Avram Grant, who was perceived to have not gotten the best out of the team.
However, Ghana’s poor World Cup qualifying form continued – they only managed victory once in the four remaining qualifiers. Sandwiched in between these spells were embarrassing performances in friendlies against a second-string Mexico side and a USA side that would also go on to have a nightmare World Cup qualifying; all of a sudden, things weren’t looking so great.
Then, in May 2018, drama hit. The president of the Ghana Football Association, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was banned from all football activities. He was caught in a sting by investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, for allegedly accepting cash gifts.
Soul-searching and reformation began at the GFA but disappointing results continued as Ghana lost 1-0 away to Kenya in Nairobi.
Fast forward to 2019 and Ghana’s three wins in qualifying have been enough after Sierra Leone were banned by FIFA. It feels like they have almost qualified by default after doing the bare minimum required.
Asamoah Gyan’s reaction to being replaced by Andre Ayew as captain was to retire before unretiring in a very short space of time after President Nana Akufo-Addo asked him to reconsider. With Gyan’s ego and sense of self-importance now satisfied, the team go into the tournament on the back of average results and not many in-form players.
As always, they’ll have pedigree – they’ve reached the final four six times in a row. With the new format, there are likely to be some poor third placed teams in the knockout stage, meaning there’s a chance they’ll find themselves in the latter stages once more.
Appiah will most likely employ a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1. Richard Ofori of Maritzburg United will man the posts. Andy Yiadom, John Boye, Kasim Adams and Lumor will form the back four.
The midfield is where it gets interesting: Kwadwo Asamoah and Thomas Partey are Ghana’s best central midfielders by a country mile. They can progress the ball through dribbling and passing, plus they’re defensively diligent. In isolation, they would be a no-brainer as a midfield pairing, but Appiah often likes to place Partey further up the pitch.
As is often the thinking when AFCON comes around, players who perform well deeper in midfield at their clubs in Europe are pushed forward because they’re the best player in the team – the kind of thing your 12 year-old FIFA-playing younger cousin would do. It works for Ghana when there’s open space but doesn’t when they play against compact defences and they struggle to get the ball forward without him.
If Partey is given more freedom in an attacking role, Mubarak Wakaso will fill in for him in midfield. He’s a good striker of the ball with a wide passing range, but positionally suspect and a walking yellow card.
Dede Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu, Asamoah Gyan and Thomas Agyepong will form the rest of the attack, again, depending on where Partey is deployed.
Experience – As alluded to before, The Black Stars have always found a way to at least get to the semi-final in recent times, regardless of the quality of their performances. Figures such as John Boye, Kwadwo Asamoah, Mubarak Wakaso, Christian Atsu, Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew and Asamoah Gyan have ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ enough times and have the institutional AFCON knowledge that better on paper teams such of Morocco haven’t.
The Achilles’ Heel
Form – If you’re an individual that thinks a player’s club form counts going into an international tournament, then you should be worried. Very few of the squad are performing well at a decent level, which says a lot about the player pool.
Thomas Partey is the team’s best player. It’s almost indisputable. He’s playing for a top La Liga team and in the Champions League. He’s a fantastic, well-rounded midfielder. Good under pressure, he’s a quality ball-carrier who’s fearsome when he’s allowed to pick up speed and good defensively. Ghana need him to perform.
The Hipster’s Choice
Manchester City’s Thomas Agyepong has struggled to stay fit on loan at Hibernian all season, so there won’t be much recent tape on him for opponents to study. He’s fast and direct, preferring to get hug the touchline and get crosses in. He could be a surprise threat to unsuspecting defences.
Kwesi Appiah is back after a spell at Sudanese side Al Khartoum. Even after the 2014 debacle, he doesn’t appear to have much authority and Ghana aren’t great as a unit. If they win the competition, it’ll probably be in spite of him.
It would be no surprise to see them reach the semi-finals, but you do get the feeling that they’ll come unstuck against the first good side they come across.