By Samuel Bartels
If you remember your Darwinism very well you would recall the controversial theorist's opinions on how nature selects the organisms to perpetuate life on the earth. “The natural environment selects traits that confer a productive advantage, causing gradual changes or evolution”. Asked what he made of the Black Stars injury situation and how Ghana would fare with a team of relative unknowns; the honourable minister of youth and sports Rashid Pelpuo said that the injuries (and axing in the case of Muntari) marked a natural stage of progression.
John Mensah, John Paintsil, Stephen Appiah, Laryea Kingston are all nursing injuries while Muntari was famously overlooked.
That has opened the gates for Samuel Nkoom, Lee Addy, Jonathan Mensah, Kwadjo Asamoah, Dominic Adiyiah et al as the new pre Madonnas in the Black Stars team.
Everybody gets their big day but I bet a few months back very few of these players would have fancied starting positions in the senior national team. The reality was that they were suitable understudies for the first choice players. Never mind someone like Nkoom had seen some action under Coach Rajevac, there's no prize for guessing who would have started in the right full back or the center back positions.
Would Rajivat have been brave enough to make the tough choices of putting in any of these young untested choices ahead of his regular soldiers? That looks highly unlikely. For one, Kojo Asamoah's emergence against Mali and Sudan and similar impressions by Opoku Agyemang only happened because of the absence of Sule, Appiah and Laryea. But having proven themselves was not enough as the so called big boys walked in for the game against Sudan and Mali at home.
The honourable minister posits that sometimes it takes tough circumstances such as the injury crisis to compel the necessary changes to happen. Going with Darwinism again, this may perhaps mark the emergence of a new generation of Black Stars. Recent memory points back to 2002 when one Ben Kuofie, then FA president radically sanctioned the parading of a team of youngsters under the tutelage of Osam Duodu. Fresh faces like Michael Essien, John Mensah, Sammy Adjei recent graduates from the Black Satellites were hurriedly assembled for that purpose while the legion of Sammy Kuffour, Sam Johnson, Augustine Arhinful, Richard Kingson and regular captain CK Akunnor faced the ignominy of being ignored. Kuffour though included was later sent back home after a high profile clash with the GFA boss. Drawn coincidentally in group B, the youngsters made it past the group stages before losing out narrowly to Nigeria in the quarter final stage. That experiment did not win the cup, but considering that Ghana only reached the quarters when they co hosted the nations cup two years earlier with a line up of Kingston, Eric Nyarko, Sam Johnson, Kwame Ayew, Otto Addo and other it could be said to have failed either. The risk of 2002 blossomed beautifully afterwards with the stage being set for the Essiens and John Mensahs to emerge.
We would have to go back 45 years to pick perhaps the most daring yet successful experiment with a new generation of Black Stars. 1965 was the year. Having won the 1963 tournament on home soil the Stars were favourites in Tunisia. However, in an unprecedented move head coach CK Gyamfi dropped all but 2 of the 63 squad members replacing them with members of the youthful academicals team. In stepped Reverend Osei Kofi, Ben Acheampong and Co to replace legends like Wilberforce Mfum, Aggrey Fynn, and Edward Acquah. That Ghanaians always have a romantic attachment to their icons is no exaggeration. As CK Gyamfi puts it “these players were ageing and I felt we needed to build for the future. The problem was that they were icons to Ghanaians who would not accept my radical shift. We therefore had to sneak out of the country to Tunisia with everybody expecting us to fail”
Ghana won that CAN in one of the most domineering conquests of all time at the tournament.
In more recent examples elsewhere one only has to look at how teams like Brazil, Germany, Italy and France have changed since the last world cup in 2006. The biggest gainers are Brazil. It seemed absurd to consider the selecao without Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Cafu, Carlos, Ze Roberto and others. Four years after Germany, Dunga's team is favourite for the world cup without any of these players but rather Louis Fabiano, Felipe Melo, Kaka, Dani Alvez and Rubihno! The Brazilians have in the Process cleaned out every major Trophy in the last couple of years.
Would Ghana's experiment work?
Soon after the draw for the CAN several media pundits installed Ghana as joint favourites together with La Cote D'Ivoire. Well that was before the injury crisis, but still that is the expectation this young team is up against-to at least make the final. Against Mali and Sudan, the Black stars opted for a style that more than made up for their missing big boys. They starved Ghanaians of their so called Agro or beautiful flair passing game, a past time that has hardly bore dividends by way of results. Instead the Milo's charges unleashed a totally efficient surgical performance, holding out the opposition's attacks and hitting them on the counter. Using the pace and power of Kwadwo Asamoah and Opoku Agyemang on the wings, the finishing touch of Matthew Amoah and the blooming partnership of Essien and Annan in the middle Ghana was done with World Cup qualifications while other teams sweated with permutations.
The Angola squad does not have John Mensah at center half. That leaves Eric Addo. But this might just be the stage for Bechem Chelsea player Lee Addy a solid, confident and physical stopper to replay 2002 all over again. Despite being locally based, the 2009 PLB best defender showed enough qualities in his only previous start for the Black Stars, against Angola. His only weakness is his lack of pace. Also eligible is Isaac Vorsah and Jonathan Mensah. Vorsah is our best asset in aerial situations but is not as accomplished with his ground tackles. The Hoffeihnheim man has however raked up valuable experience in several cameo roles in the Bundesliga and also under the Rajivat. Mensah looked extremely promising at the world youth Championships except for occasional misjudgments and lapses in concentration. But then a settled Mensah with good complimentary partnership is a good rear guard for any team. The hurdle nonetheless remains daunting for whoever steps into the fray to stop the likes of Chelsea supremo Didier Drogba, Togo talisman Sheyi Adebayor and Mumuni Dagano-top scorer in the qualifiers.
Samuel Nkoom seems the most obvious replacement for the crocked John Paintsil. A favourite of Milo's, the under-20 player already feels at home in the Black Stars Jersey and would have to be at his best against the very physical west African attackers in Group B. Nkoom was not a peak performer at the youth championships and was severely berated for his poor crossing and sloppy recovery. That would however not nullify his contribution to the Satellites triumph and the devastating effect of his runs down the flank which would more than make up for the lack of a natural right winger. His recovery and ability to match physical opponents would be the biggest asking for him. Rahim Ayew looks set to step as back up after being experimented in the position in tune up games at Nelspruit. Afful Harrison is perhaps the most unappreciated player in the Black Stars set up. The youngster was spotted by Claude Leroy while starring for Kotoko in the 2007/08 local season. He has since found his home in the left full back position- perhaps the cause for Sarpei's unannounced withdrawal from the team during the qualifiers. What Harrison lacks in size he makes up for in his pace, distribution and control on the ball. He is at his best on the offensive but some are ill at ease with his defensive abilities. Perhaps Afful does not enjoy much protection from midfield, the exception being the Mali game. Hans Adu Sarpei's return to the team is being threatened by a groin injury. However when he is fit he comes with more experience and physical presence and seems to engender some ease at the back with his cool approach. His major lapse is his evident lack of pace at 33 years. This might hamper any flying breaks down the wings. Afful seems a better option to start.
The life source of the Black Stars has been the midfield which was reputed as one of the best in the world. Accept it or not just one of the famous quartet of Muntari, Laryea, Appiah and Essien would feature in Angola. Instead Anthony Annan, Kwadjo Asamoah, Haminu Dramani, Opoku Agyemang, Musa Nary would be Milo's options. Kwadjo Asamoah's importance to the team cannot be overemphasised; question is what position to play him. Versatile, physical, skilled dribbler and possessing a thunderous left foot Asamoah could be the player to carry the Black Stars into the El Dorado Ghanaians have been seeking for 28 years. The left or right should suit him just fine but with the team lacking a complete play maker the number 10 could play behind the main striker (s) in a 5 man midfield.
Essien and Annan seem set to hold the center of the midfield. Annan will as usual be protecting the backline while Essien manipulates the show from the center. Agyemang Badu is always a valuable back up. Opoku Agyemang seems the best option on the left unless Milo Opts for K Asamoah. Despite not enjoying the best form at the world youth Championships Agyemang possesses good control and physical play with a good left foot to top. His ball judgments are questionable sometimes. Opoku is not a star but might be the work man or Kayayei Ghana needs to give options going forward and also be a second left back when the team is backed against the wall. Dede Ayew exhibited great maturity and work rate at Egypt 2009 and countless occasions his drive was all the Satellites could call on in tough times. He has ridden the accusations of playing “childish football” quite well by adding the tough tackler role to his game while improving on his passing. Dede seems a good supporting cast in the left attacking position, though his over reliance on his left side may hamper a tactical switch to the right. Haminu Draman would continue to confound his critics as he makes his third appearance at a major tournament. Full of drive and speed, Draman's best asset is his work rate. He is however held back by an irregular final ball delivery and his rather conspicuous lack of flair on the ball. Musa Nary is still living in the shadows of his abilities and may turn to be one of the best kept secrets for Ghana if he is give a chance. The midfield looks like Essien, Annan, K Asamoa, Opoku Agyeman or Draman. On the fringes would be Musa Narry, Agyemang Badu, Dede Ayew and Perhaps Rahim Ayew.
Ghana's biggest challenge remains the consistency of its strikers. Matthew Amoah and Asamoah Gyan look set to start ahead of the Satellites duo of Adiyiah and Ransford Osei. The task for Matthew is to deliver continuously at a major competition. A quite appearance at Mali 2002 was followed by a brilliant qualifying round but disappointing world Cup at Germany 2006 and then missed CAN 2008. He undoubtedly Ghana's best scorer and has a better score rate per chance than Asamoah Gyan despite his lack of a physical presence. In the qualifiers he missed some sitters and was often lost when the real moments when his touch was needed upfront. But Angola 2010 is the chance to endorse his quality. Gyan has been in terrific form for Rennes in Ligue 1 and got a hat trick in one of tune up games against a second tier South African club. After enduring misery from Ghanaian supporters at the last tournament coupled with injury Asamoah is out to prove a point. If he is to succeed he has to stick to the basics and quit elaborating at crucial moments. Adiyiah and Ransford have proven their prowess in front of goal especially the latter who seems a more dangerous presence in the 18 yard box. These two make their debut at a senior tournament and may like come off the bench. They have to deal with Bully defenders and the aura of the nation's cup.
The coach is stuck in the quagmire of fever pitch expectations of Ghanaian football fans and some scepticism. The decision to drop Muntari did not resonate particularly well with the senior players in the team. Caught between a rock and a hard place, but then when have Ghanaians ever permanently been on any body's side. If there's one thing Rajivat has proven, it is his readiness to make some tough choices. He obviously knows how high the stakes are. The Serb apparently favours tactical games albeit not very pretty football. His second half changes seem to reverse his rather slow approach to games though one wonders why he would rather wait till the very end of games to effect crucial changes. Runners up in the and CHAN and world cup qualification aside Angola should be one of the toughest competitions ever and THE TEST of class against the continental big boys. Is Rajivat up for this? He has proven very result oriented. It does not take eleven star players to get results. That much has been replayed on many stages including the nation's cup wins by Egypt. What Milovan Rajevac's task prescribes is to wield this collection into a formidable unit called a team. Of course getting his tactics right in any of the games would be decisive. Ghana does not possess the stars the Cote d'Ivoire has, and the Black Stars line up may not intimidate too many, but I suspect it is in the other team's interest to wary of this nondescript but hungry Ghana Black Stars side with an unfancied coach.
Credit: Sammy Bartels
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