SCOTT PETERSON - Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Meeting the Nemesis.
This is part three of three, examining America's Group G opponents.
Up next: Ghana
Nickname - The Black Stars
World Rank - 24th
Record v USA 4-0-0; 2-0-0 in World Cup
Best finish - Quarterfinals (2010)
Having a nemesis is a part of reality in the sporting world. Every country has one: Germany has Italy, Argentina has Brazil, Portugal has Greece, the USA has Ghana. A team that, for whatever reason, just seems to always get the best of another when the chips are on the line.
Sometimes it's match-up problems, e.g. Germany v Italy, sometimes it's psychological, see Argentina v Brazil, sometimes it's dumb luck, as was the case in Greece and Portugal back at the 2004 Euros.
For the USA and Ghana, it's not really any of the above.
Both the final group stage match at Germany 06 and the Round of 16 contest in South Africa 2010 were extremely competitive. The first time around the US was unlucky to have been on the wrong end of some egregious officiating by Markus Merk, while in 2010 Ghana simply had more legs, and the backing of the pro-African crowd.
In short, both teams match up well with each other and, given a break here or there, either could come out on top. The biggest advantage Ghana has over the US lies in the individual technical on-the-ball abilities of its players.
At the helm since 2012, new head coach James Kwesi Appiah will be able to rely on established professionals and outright stars from the highest echelon of European club soccer. In fact, Appiah does have a great deal to work with in his first foray into an international tournament, and his bevy of riches in midfield is the cornerstone to the 4-5-1 formation used during qualifying.
In fact, the Ghanaian midfield, when healthy, can rival that of any team in the world and, with all due respect to Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and the rest of the US midfield, should be the area on the pitch where Ghana will have the largest advantage.
Ghana boasts a handful of genuine world class talents in the middle of the pitch with the likes of Michael Essien and Kevein Prince Boateng, while Sulley Muntari is a solid pro in his own right and has tasted success at the highest level in European club soccer, helping Inter win the Champions League in 2009.
Essien, 31, still has enough in the proverbial tank to play at the highest level. His recent switch to AC Milan will see him link up with fellow midfielder Muntari, and he should log significant minutes after finding it hard to get a game this campaign in a crowded Chelsea midfield.
A box-to-box midfielder with excellent distribution, Essien is a physical presence that thrives at snuffing out opposing attacks with fair, but fearless tackling, before navigating the ball to his offensive-minded compatriots.
With Essien lying in front of the back line, while Boateng patrols in a slightly advanced position sending probing long balls and testing keepers from distance, the defensive midfield is as apt to deliver a bone-crunching tackle as it is a precision pass through the opposing defense.
This stability gives offensive midfielders the safety blanket required for serious attacking forays. With Kwadwo Asamoah out wide and creative maestro André Ayew lying behind the striker, Ghana's attacking midfield has the requisite ability, speed and creativity to unlock any defense.
An additional headache for the opposition is the even distribution of goal scorers the Black Stars have.
Essien, Boateng and Muntari all find the back of the net in an average of 10% of games played. Essien has tallied 37 times in 325 club games and 9 in 52 for the national team, Boateng has scored 27 times in 175 for his clubs and twice in ten for country, while Muntari has 30 in 290 for club.
Muntari, however, has an even more impressive goal average when lining up for the Black Stars, scoring in over a quarter of his 78 games played for Ghana.
The lesser-known midfield duo of Ayew and Asmoah only happens to consist of established starters for France's Olympique Marseilles and record Italian champions Juventus.
Asamoah starts for Juventus and is stout winger with a stature similar to Essien's wielding a similar skillset to former NFL great Barry Sanders that includes a low-center of gravity, quick feet and underrated toughness.
Ayew will operate just behind the striker or strikers to provide the attacking confluence between midfield, flanks and strikers. Ayew is a short and speedy attacker with a knack for goal, having tallied 30 times in 108 appearances in the past four seasons for Marseilles. Despite his diminutive 5-9 stature, Ayew possesses an incredible leaping ability, which makes him a legitimate aerial threat. Ayew is currently rehabbing after surgery on a torn meniscus suffered in November, but is expected to return to action soon.
Leading the Ghanaian strike force is captain Asamoah Gyan. Captain since Appiah took the reins in 2012, Gyan has had spells in Italy, France and England, and is currently decimating the less-than-stellar completion facing his Al-Ain side in the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, he has put up an impressive 82 goals in 80 games.
A better barometer of his goal-scoring knack are his stats from Italy, England and France: 30 goals in 174 games. For the Black Stars his stats read 39 goals in 76 games played, including an extra-time winner versus the US in 2010. He also missed a penalty in the dying moments versus Uruguay the quarterfinals that would have sent them through to the semis.
Ghana's major question marks begin in goal.
The Black Stars figure to field either journeyman keeper Richard Kingson or the largely inexperienced Fatau Dauda. The former has had stints in Sweden, England, Greece and Turkey, where he currently plays for Balikssirspor, while the latter has only played for his hometown club and South Africa's Orlando Pirates. Kingson is 35, young for goalies, and does has two World Cups under his belt, while Dauda is 28 and can only point to the playoff tie versus Egypt as any meaningful experience.
The biggest Ghanaian weakness, however, clearly lies in their defensive backline. The most accomplished defender is John Pantsil, who has played in the English Premier League for Fulham, where he was a teammate of Clint Dempsey, West Ham United and Leicester City. A journeyman throughout his career, he has bounced around of late, eventually landing in South Africa.
Rounding out the Ghanaian defense are John Boye and Johnathan Mensah of French clubs Rennes and Gallian respectively and Salzburg's Issac Vorsah. Both Vorsah and Mensah start for their clubs and have starting-lineup experience from the last Cup, while Boye has been thus far limited to a lone appearance this campaign with Rennes.
The largely inexperienced and/or out-of-favor first choice selections at the back do not exactly breed optimism when the opposition includes the likes of Ronaldo, Klose, Özil and Götze.
To be sure the defensive liabilities will be mitigated to a degree by the presence and experience of the established Ghanaian midfielders, but it is hard to find an argument that holds up under any objective scrutiny that bodes well for Ghana's chances against such attacking teams as Portugal and Germany.
Does Ghana have a realistic chance of advancing? Most definitely. Every team in this group does, which is one more reason why the overused term group of death is bandied about when talking about it. That said, only the most optimistic Ghanaian soccer fan can love their chances of advancing.
While they match up well with the US, the advantage they enjoy over the Yanks in the center of the pitch is certainly lost versus both Portugal and Germany. Although their athleticism, pace and team spirit is arguably better than the European favorites, it would be anything but a massive upset if their defensive liabilities were not exposed.
The prognosis for Ghana looks decidedly grim. Much will depend on the outcome of the group opener between the two budding rivals. Only if there is a victor between the US and Ghana will either side have a chance of progressing - and Ghana cannot continue besting the US, can it?