27 January 2012
Verdant valleys sweep into the distance from the newly constructed stadium in Franceville. The quiet activity in the villages that nestle amid those plains offer up a sharp contrast to the intensity of the arena. Mali will take on Ghana in a battle to head Group D while Botswana will play Guinea for the chance to remain in the competition.
John Paintsil, the Ghana skipper for the clash following the two match suspension of John Mensah, said: “It’s a game that we are going to call do-or-die. It’s a game that will qualify us for the quarter final. It’s a massive one.”
True, victory for either side will add their name to the roster for the last eight. But defeat will not entirely erode their hopes of progress.
Ghana and Mali enjoyed opening day 1-0 wins over Botswana and Guinea respectively.
Of the results, Ghana’s was considered the more questionable.
The Black Stars were beaten finalists at the Africa Cup of Nations two years ago in Angola.
The bulk of that team then went on to a quarter final slot at the World Cup in South Africa.
There have since been a plethora of high profile international friendly matches to confirm their status as one of the powers of African football.
Botswana, though impressive in their qualification group, had never been to the latter stages of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Following Mensah’s dismissal mid-way through the second half for a crude challenge on Jerome Ramatlhakwane, Ghana were on the back foot as Botswana surged forward looking for an unlikely equaliser.
If that had come, it might have created a tectonic shift in the continent’s football firmament. Ghana dug in. However, perceptions have been jolted.
Botswana’s assistant coach, Kenneth Mogae, acknowledged the 90 minutes against the Black Stars had transformed his squad.
“The lesson that we got was that Ghana is just like any other team. They can be contained and they can be beaten. These are the things that the guys will be taking into their game against Guinea – that it is possible for the team to come up with a result regardless of the opponent.”
Botswana should be aided in their quest by the return of Dipsy Selolwane. The midfield schemer missed the first match due to suspension.
The side replaced his deft touches and angled passes with endeavour but it was not enough to unruffle Ghana who appear to be exploiting the fortune of being drawn in Group D and thus playing their games at the end of each group stage cycle.
Dossier: Africa Cup of Nations 2012
So far they’ve seen the capitulation of pre-tournament favourites Senegal and a far from convincing Côte D’Ivoire.
Ghana midfielder André Ayew said: “Look, if Senegal had won their first two games and qualified, people would be putting pressure on us and saying: ‘Ghana is one of the big teams now you have to qualify.’
“Senegal did not qualify, so people are putting pressure on us to qualify. So there’s always pressure on us. We know why we are here and it is for us to realise that it’s not always the favourites who win. It is the fighting spirit on the pitch.”
The 22-year-old Marseille midfielder added: “If you don’t run as much or more than the other team you can’t win.”
Ghana’s coach Goran Stevanovic made a smart move after the game against Botswana by refusing to complain about their defensive tactics. He also praised his side’s gritty performance.
“We showed great commitment, great desire. It’s not easy to win when everyone says before the game that you will win. We did win and I’m pleased with my players.”
Mali though might be the team to topple Ghana. The star player, Barcelona’s Seydou Keita, is a wily old soul who has seen Nations Cup campaigns in Ghana and Angola.
“It’s a young team,” he said. “But they are talented even if they do lack a bit of experience. But with desire and solidarity we can do better than we did in Ghana and Angola.
In those tournaments they did not emerge from the group stages. They did record one of the best Nations Cup comebacks two years ago coming from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with the hosts Angola in Luanda.
Keita, who bagged a brace in the game as his team reeled in the deficit in the final 11 minutes, added “I’m here to put in a bit of know-how and lead by example. Experience helps but one player doesn’t make a team. Individuality brings nothing. Being collective is the key.”
It is a view echoed by Keita’s Guinean counterpart Camille Zayatte.
The match against Botswana will be only his second as skipper. But there is an ease about him due, no doubt, to lack of expectation.
The west Africans are not on the radar. Their best performance was an appearance in the 1976 final.
Zayatt said: “We just want to show everybody that we have a good team that we have heart.
“We’ve got young players and they want to show everybody that they have quality.”
Three points against Botswana would be a start. And from there Ghana would be the next target.
Unlikely wins have peppered the opening two rounds of the group stages. But Guinea beating Ghana next Wednesday would lend spice to the tournament.
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