By Nii Ayitey Tetteh
?Do or die? It?s a bit of clich?, but it jumps at you when you think about the game. Ghana and Algeria would know a thing or two about do or die battles. Way back in the Algerian city of Tlemcen in 1993, February 26 to be exact, the Black Stars and the Desert Foxes battled for a place at the 1994 World Cup finals.
The Foxes won 2-1 albeit under controversial circumstance on a water soaked the pitch. ?Tlemcen disaster? as it became known, was the last competitive encounter between the two sides, but come January 23, 2015, in dryer conditions in Mongomo, Equatorial Guinea, both teams would have another chance to bury the ghost of Tlemcen and create a new memory; one that could determine which side advances or gets eliminated from the AFCON.
If football were mathematics, Algeria would be winning this one by a country mile. Ranked 15th by FIFA and number one in Africa, Algerian football has been on cruise control the past 12 months; a respectable second round achievement at last year?s World Cup hasn?t quenched the desire of the Desert Foxes who qualified for this AFCON after only four games in the qualifiers. Current coach Christian Gourcuff, who replaced Vahid Halilhodzic, has built upon his predecessor?s foundation by adding a crisp short passing dimension to the foxes? game.
Indeed, so have Algeria mastered this art that in one of the qualifiers versus Ethiopia, the foxes completed a total of 613 passes. That was the stature with which Algeria entered the tourney and justifiably so as the book makers favourites and though the 3-1 score line by which the foxes defeated South Africa in the first game flattered them a bit, they would know that another 3 points secured versus Ghana would more or less secure a ticket to the quarter final.
Ghana on the other hand, have been going through a patchy period. The Black Stars barely had time to regroup after the disastrous World Cup outing and zoomed straight into the AFCON qualifiers. That campaign saw Ghana use two coaches and then on the eve of the tourney appoint Avram Grant. Stability obviously is a scarce commodity within the team?s ranks and Grant hasn?t helped matters by violently tweaking the team?s formation from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2. Fears that the team may not adapt within the short time were confirmed when Ghana lost her first game 2-1 to Senegal. It wasn?t so much that the team lost but the manner in which the team imploded after taking a 1-0 lead through Ayew?s penalty.? Ghana?s work is clearly cut out; either win or get on the plane, in other words, do or die.
The Stars and foxes are thus primed for wins, nothing less, but a lot more. Full amour; swords drawn; here is how both teams may charge at each other.
The biggest question going into this game has been whether Avram Grant would ditch his radical 3-5-2 formation and revert to 4-4-2, which Ghana used in the qualifiers. It?s hard to second guess Grant who can be a bit enigmatic. Logic would dictate that Ghana reverts to 4-4-2 which the team is used to. The 3-5-2 can be effective if imbibed over a longer period and considering that Grant barely had 3 weeks to train the team, his insistence on revolutionizing the team?s formation looks a bit boneheaded on hindsight. The team suffered against a physically fitter Senegal side and looked tactically out of sorts. The biggest losers on the Ghanaian team that day were Harrison Afful and Abdul Baba Rahman who were to have operated as wing backs; emphasis on ?were? because they looked anything but as the entire formation broke down in the second half. Logic would once again dictate that Afful and Rahman revert to more traditional full back roles in a 4 man defense with Rabiu Mohammed sitting in front and supported by a more industrious Mubarak Wakaso in place of the languid Agyemang Badu.
Grant should be bold to introduce Anderlecht?s Frank Acheampong and move Andre Ayew to the wings as Frank and Andre are capable of occupying Algeria?s full backs Faouzi Ghoulam and Aissa Mandi whose appetite to overlap is well documented. Grant would definitely start Captain Asamoah Gyan who returns after a bout with malaria. Grant may also be tempted to start the diminutive but nimble footed Solomon Asante in a traditional number 10 role to create chances, an attribute that was clearly missing in the Stars game versus Senegal.? It is an attribute terribly required to keep the Algerian set up on the back foot and also to exploit their slow center back pairing of Rafik Halliche and Carl Medjani. That area seems to be the only weak spot in an Algerian team that would seek to possess the ball and use their main creative hub Yacine Brahimi to supply Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani to do damage to a very fragile Black Stars defense.
A high tempo game is thus expected and goals can be guaranteed as well with both sides susceptible to conceding goals. Algeria, however look the more stable team with a right balance from defense through midfield to attack and should on paper nick this match, but football has never been on paper, the green grass will tell come 1600 GMT, January 23, 2015. A couple of hours later, we will know who did and who died.
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(Culled from the 90 Minutes)