Ghana cannot afford successive AFCON Group stage exits
Since 1992, the Black Stars have been involved in eight final Group stage matches with qualification to the knockout stages on the line.
Ghana has a 50% success rate in these games. But the losses and accompanying heartbreaks are indelibly seared into the memories of Ghanaian football fans. All but the AFCON 2000 defeat to Cote d’Ivoire resulted in exits from the competition: 0-1 loss to Congo DR in 1998, 1-2 loss to Zimbabwe in 2006 and a 2-3 loss to debutants Comoros in the 2021 tournament.
What Ghana has never suffered is successive group-stage exits at the AFCON, but that spectre looms large unless the Black Stars can exorcise the ghosts of 2021 and triumph over Mozambique in their final Group B match of AFCON 2023. The recriminations and fallouts from an early exit could set back the beleaguered Kurt Okraku’s administration’s flailing project to restore the Black Stars to their glorious past. The inevitable dismantling of the technical team, reset of the playing body and political inquest on either side of an election year could affect Ghana’s chances of reaching the 2026 World Cup.
In 2022, the World Cup qualification offered a painkiller for the early AFCON Group exit. The present circumstance offers no immediate options for reprieve. In short, Ghana v Mozambique is a crucial moment for the future of the Black stars.
The exit from AFCON 2021 should be a source of sober reflection and nothing more. Only six members of the present squad played in that painful loss to Comoros.
Mozambique is a different team that should neither be over-respected nor underestimated. The Mambas have never kept a clean sheet at the AFCON and are at the cusp of matching Zimbabwe’s unwanted record of 15 games without a clean sheet. They are also winless in 14 matches at the AFCON. Although they scored twice against Egypt in their opening game, Mozambique barely threatened Cabo Verde in their 3-0 loss to their Lusophone counterparts.
The Black Stars on the other hand improved in their offensive display against Egypt, anchored by the return of Mohammed Kudus. The galvanized team played with more intensity and created more chances.
The big question is whether the defence can stay awake for 90+ minutes and minimise the errors that have led them to concede four goals in two matches. The Black Stars seem intent on playing out from the back even when pressed by their opponents. So far this has not worked out. It will be pointless to stick to that approach. Sometimes a safety-first clearance is the easiest way to get rid of the ball, especially in tournament football where there simply aren’t enough matches to recover from mistakes.
Luck is often understated in football, but teams do need a huge slice of it in decisive games. Andre Ayew’s dismissal against Comoros, Stephen Appiah’s fitness challenges against Zimbabwe no doubt handed the initiative to the opposition. The Black Stars should make their own luck by aiming to finish off the Mambas in the first half and leaving very little to chance. History shows that the longer these matches dawdle as a close contest the higher the chances of an upset as we have seen in Cote d’Ivoire.
The catalogue of shock results recorded at AFCON 2023 and the predicament of teams like Cameroon, Algeria, and Tunisia (all on one point each) going into the final round of group games appear to have eased the ire of Ghanaians about the Black Stars performance so far.
Misery, they say, loves company, but Ghana must mind its own business and clinch the three points necessary to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. The calculations can wait until after the deed is done.
Sometimes teams grow into tournaments; it seems the Black Stars are on an upward trajectory after the disappointing start against Cabo Verde.
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