It was a very tough battle, between two countries whose rivalry extends far beyond the football field, but in the end Ghana were the first semi-finalists of the 2008 African Cup of Nations, and deservedly so. The Black Stars went through a plethora of emotions throughout tonight’s game: they stepped onto the field with half the team in non-ideal physical shape (a light injury here, a few cramps there), they were forced to concede the first goal of the match against the run of play, and after they valiantly tied the game they were forced to play for over 30 minutes with one man down (John Mensah got sent off for a last-man foul on Peter Odemwingie).
Despite all these events, Ghana relentlessly continued to play their game: short passing, strong support of the midfielders to the striking duo (when you have finishers like Gyan Asamoah and Manuel Agogo you need any help you can get), and frequent pushes down the wings by Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and Sulley Muntari. In the end, the team managed by Claude Le Roy emerged as winners with a goal in the final minutes, against a Nigerian team which will probably have a lot of regrets in the coming week, especially for not trying harder during their numerical advantage. At the end of the day: Ghana are through to the Semi-Finals, Nigeria out of the African Cup.
Right from the beginning, Super Eagles’ coach Berti Vogts (the very same who won the 1974 World Cup as a player, and Euro 1996 as a manager) decided to field a fairly conservative formation: a 4-3-3 line-up which (on paper) may have looked focused on attacking, but which in actuality heavily relied on the defensive work of Peter Odemwingie and Ikechukwu Uche (the Nigerian wingers on duty today) to give a hand to the 3-man midfield (formed by Dickson Etuhu and George Olofinjana, defensive mids in support of John Obi Mikel).
In counterpart, the choice of leaving Aiyegbeni Yakubu all alone as the central striker proved to be a fairly effective tactic, because the Super Eagles forward was a big thorn in the backside of Eric Addo and John Mensah (the two Ghana center-backs) for the entire match. It should come as fairly little surprise therefore, to see that the first goal of the game came from a penalty kick, provoked by the very same Yakubu as he was brought down in the box by… you’ve guessed it, Eric Addo, all this in minute 35. The Everton striker transformed his own spot-shot into the bottom-left corner, despite Richard Kingson going the right way. 1-0 Nigeria.
Ghana thus found themselves trailing on the scoreline, for the first time in the entire tournament, despite clearly dominating the first period of the match (a Gyan post in minute 23, and a Gyan backheel flick for Agogo, neutralized into corner, come to mind). Nevertheless, Claude Le Roy’s team didn’t give in and managed to obtain the equalizer with the last move of the first period: Owusu-Abeyie’s cross from the left was met with a glancing header by Michael Essien and the ball went in off the left post, trickling along the goal line before going in. 1-1, in the 2nd minute of stoppage time.
After the break, the Nigerian team came back on the grass with the clear intention of quickly regaining their lead. Odemwingie was multiplying his fast runs forward, often putting the Ghanaian defense under pressure, and a 35m-lob by Ikechukwu Uche (after the keeper had come out of the box to challenge an aerial pass with his head) almost entered into the net, Kingson only managing to tip it over the bar with a quick back-pedalling motion.
In minute 60, it seemed as it was curtains down for Ghana when Odemwingie epxloited yet another pass through, and on a two-on-one situation (with Yakubu supporting) was brought down on the edge of the box by Black Stars captain Mensah. Obvious red card, promptly displayed by the Algerian referee of the match, Ghana down to 10 men, and Nigeria with a dangerous free-kick opportunity for cannonball specialist Taye Taiwo. The ensuing set-piece turned out to be a real heart-pounder for the local team, because there wasn’t one, there weren’t two, there were THREE shots in quick succession (respectively by Taiwo, Shittu, and Mikel) which the Ghanaian keeper and defense somehow managed to keep away from the net.
With one man down, Claude Le Roy decided to take one of his strikers (if we may call them that) off, and put on a right midfielder. Essien, much like he has done for Chelsea these past years (and remembering that was his original role at Bastia when he first started) reverted back to a central defender position. Vogts on the other hand, did not make use of the extra man advantage to insert a few additional offensive players, and instead let his team continue unchanged.
In the end, that probably must have been the German coach’s biggest mistake of the match, one the Nigerian press are surely going to pin on Vogts’ back with a big rusty nail and a fat heavy hammer. Effectively, this no-action attitude allowed the Black Stars to progressively get back into the game and not lose confidence, all the way up to minute 82: out on the left wing, Haminu Dramani spotted Muntari in the box, and the ex-Udinese midfielder slammed a hard cross onto the 2nd post for the Agogo tap-in. 2-1 Ghana with one man down!
The final 10 minutes were going to be a mix of reckless showboating (Laryea Kingston and Haminu Dramani doing all kinds of unnecessary flicks and stepovers, to taunt their opponents and waste time) to last-gasp defensive clearances (Muntari and Kingson first on the list). In the end however, Ghana held tight for the final 2-1 scoreline, and the country 2nd ever victory on the Super Eagles at the African Cup of Nations. The Black Stars’ next match is scheduled for Thursday, when they’ll be playing the winner of the Tunisia-Cameroon match.