Black Stars players

On Saturday night, without warning, news spread on social media that several of Ghana’s players were on Instagram Live.

They were having a team bonding session that’s become customary, ushering in new members of the side by asking them to dance. It was a welcome vibe from the dark cloud that’s hung over the team even before the recent Afcon, and it mirrored the belief ahead of the World Cup qualifying playoff second leg in Abuja.

Just before the initiation was done, technical advisor Chris Hughton asked all phones to be switched off, after which – following his own little dance – he reminded the team of the permutations: he said the Black Stars are going to Nigeria for Ghana’s ticket to the World Cup, either by getting a score draw or by winning outright.

He needn’t have bothered, because every member of that squad knows what time it is.

Ghana paraded inexperienced players in the goalless first leg in Kumasi, as compared to the Nigerian lineup.

Here’s the Stars XI (number of caps before the game): Jojo Wollacot (6), Denis Odoi (0), Daniel Amartey (36), Alexander Djiku (10), Gideon Mensah (5), Thomas Partey (38), Baba Iddrisu (10), Mohammed Kudus (9), Fatawu Issahaku (5), Jordan Ayew (73), Felix Afena-Gyan (0).

Only three players had more than 10 caps, as compared to Nigeria, whose XI had five players with 20 or more caps, and nine players with 10 or more: Francis Uzoho (17), Ola Aina (20), Will Troost-Ekong (52), Leon Balogun (42), Zaidu Sanusi (8), Innocent Bonke (1), Joe Aribo (11), Moses Simon (42), Samuel Chukwueze (18), Kelechi Iheanacho (36), Victor Osimhen (17).

For Ghana, underdogs ahead of the tie, to have controlled the game as they did, showed that minor improvements could lead to the result needed.

  • The problems will be fixed

At the last Afcon, Ghana suffered greatly from coaching lapses. What we witnessed in the first leg was structure and a plan; an attempt at having an identity. But there were a few niggles, and Addo promised to work on them in his post-match presser:

• Late subs: Nigeria completed five subs before Ghana – who needed fresh ideas as early as the hour mark – started throwing on new men.

• Set pieces: the Black Stars could have killed the game in a dominant first half, but none of the six corners or three freekicks within range did much damage.

• Ghana can also take a note from the one-touch football Nigeria played for much of the game, rather than over–elaborating when attacking.

• In the words of former Ghana striker Mahatma Otoo: “We need a clinical striker, one who knows how to run behind defenses and also one who can hold the ball upfront. The players we have are not typical strikers so they don’t know how to move in the box.”

  • Super Eagles are very beatable

Ahead of the series, there was too much respect shown to Nigeria, who are decent, but actually not that good. A few observations:

• Troost-Ekong is rusty due to a lack of game time, and, but for Balogun – who outdid himself with key interceptions – the tie would have been done early. If Troost-Ekong starts, Ghana must constantly attack his side of the defense, especially on his weaker left foot.

• Djiku did a number on Osimhen, who completed just one pass in 90 minutes, because the Napoli attacker lacked service to run onto balls as he prefers. In his bid to be productive, he kept playing deep, becoming an easy target by the time he got into dangerous areas. Meanwhile, Iheanacho couldn’t be the crucial link between defensive midfield and attack; Simon and Chuwueze had problems of their own and couldn’t assist, either.

• Nigeria will likely add an extra body in midfield to wrestle control in the second leg. In that case, Ghana cannot afford to have another quiet Partey performance. The Arsenal man lost possession 17 times, more than any other midfielder in the game. It can be argued that he suffered from a lack of movement from his teammates, which will be fair.

• One cannot complain about the desire shown by the Ghana side, and a repeat of that on Tuesday is assured.

Beyond pride, beyond banter.
The winner of this two-legged series is guaranteed this payoff from Fifa: $2 million preparation fee and $10 million guaranteed group stage fee. The 0-0 first leg score means there’s all to play for. This Ghana FA administration have been hit hard by financial pitfalls due to the pandemic and prevailing tough economic conditions.

Jordan Ayew is the only player in this Ghana playoff squad to have tasted World Cup football, and the hunger within the camp is unmistakable. By the time the series ends at the Moshood Abiola Stadium, the Black Stars should be heading to a first World Cup since 2014.

This means more.

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