I was up in the early hours of Monday morning eagerly anticipating a big football match, but it wasn’t Arsenal-Manchester United but instead the African Cup of Nations final in Angola where Australia’s World Cup group opponents Ghana fell short 1-0 against Egypt.
Despite the Black Stars’ final loss, they were arguably the footballing story of the continental tournament, with manager Milovan Rajevac guiding a youthful squad (yes, there was one sucking a pacifier on the bench in the final!) all the way to the decider despite being robbed of several key players like Michael Essien due to injury.
And while the tournament presented many interesting subplots, it also offered Australian fans an insight into the Ghanaians ahead of our crucial World Cup group stage clash in Rustenburg on June 19.
In fact, Australia assistant Graham Arnold was scheduled to witness Ghana first-hand over in Angola, before that trip was cancelled following the terrorist attack on the Togo squad.
Nevertheless, I kept a keen eye on the African Cup of Nations (thanks largely to Setanta) and these were the five key revelations from my observations of the Black Stars in Angola.
1. Milovan Rajevac Knows What He’s Doing
The 56-year-old Serb may only have held a few club coaching positions back in his homeland, most famously but briefly at Red Star Belgrade during 2004, but his quality exceeds his record.
Rajevac isn’t afraid of backing himself, a point highlighted by his decision to leave gun midfielder Sulley Muntari out of the 23-man squad altogether after the Inter man failed to apologise, or at least pay a fine, having missed a friendly in November. That decision took a lot of guts considering Ghana’s injury woes.
And the Serbian is in many ways like our own Pim Verbeek, as he doesn’t hide his obsession with results. He fascinatingly told reporters before the tournament, “We came here (Angola) to compete and not to play entertaining football. The most important thing is the result and not how much possession we had during a particular game.”
Indeed, Ghana’s hat-trick of 1-0 wins which won them their place in the final were dubbed by some as ‘ugly’. But Rajevac has an emphasis on defence, being organised and making as few mistakes as possible.
Rajevac stated, “Every team must know how to defend because it is an essential element of modern football.” And Ghana’s success in Angola shows they know exactly how to defend (even without injured vice-captain John Mensah) so Verbeek will need a few tricks for Australia’s somewhat blunt, and predictable, attack in South Africa.
2. Ghana Are Hard To Break Down
Continuing on the point of Rajevac’s style, the Black Stars had a real spirit about them in Angola, whilst enjoying the benefits of their manager’s organisation.
Both these points can be largely credited for why Ghana went almost six hours without conceding a goal in Angola (until Mohamed Gedo’s late winner for Egypt).
Indeed, after losing their opening game 3-1 to Ivory Coast, Ghana hit back with three consecutive 1-0 wins over Burkina Faso, Angola and Nigeria respectively. And curiously, all three wins occurred in the same manner, with the Black Stars grabbing a first-half goal, before sitting on their lead in the second-half. Sure, they rode their luck, but they made life hard for their opponents.
3. But The Black Stars Can Be A Bit Blunt
Despite their defensive successes, there was to be no first-half goal against Egypt for Ghana while against Ivory Coast the Black Stars couldn’t respond after going behind despite enjoying a one-man advantage. It appears they do find goals hard to come by and too often in Angola frontman Asamoah Gyan (who did actually have a fine tournament) was left isolated.
Ghana really don’t possess that world-class forward and that is potentially their weakness. NAC Breda’s Matthew Amoah and Gyan are the regulars, but the dark horse could be 20-year-old Dominic Adiyiah who was last year’s Under-20 World Cup Player of the Tournament (which Ghana won) and recently signed with AC Milan. He didn’t really get going in Angola though.
4. There’s More To Ghana Than Essien
Chelsea superstar Michael Essien, along with John Mensah, John Pantsil, Stephen Appiah, Laryea Kingston, Anthony Annan and Muntari may all have been out of action in Angola but Ghana showed they’ve got ample squad depth.
Udinese midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah was one of the stars in Angola with his vicious left boot a likely threat at the World Cup. And it was Asamoah’s precise long-ball which set up the pacy Gyan for the goal against Angola and that moment will send shivers down the necks of Australia’s ageing backline who could be exposed by such swift movement.
Ghana goalkeeper Richard Kingston was another surprise performer in Angola despite his distinct lack of gametime at Wigan, where he’s ironically being kept out of the team currently by a Serb.
5. They Can Improve
This is the scary part, but an obvious one considering some of the absentees from their Nations Cup squad. Essien will inevitably improve their side in South Africa and Rajevac believes his side’s experiences in Angola will help his youngsters for the future.
He said after the final loss, “Experience gained here will be crucial to our preparations at the World Cup. We now have enough time to prepare (for the World Cup).” But he also added, “The young players are the future, but they cannot play on their own. Egypt beat us today because they have plenty of experience.”
So for me, there’s no doubt Ghana will be more than a handful in South Africa, but not going behind could be the key. The question is how will we break them down and get ourselves ahead? Three points against Ghana will be crucial.