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Avram Grant has several big questions to answer before Ghana’s Tuesday night friendly against Mali. The way he answers these questions will largely depend on his broader approach for the second of these two international matches.
Friendlies such as these are typically approached in two different ways; either coaches look to focus on their supposed first XI and concentrate on building the rapport among their starters, or they choose to experiment, with tactics and/or personnel.
Obviously, there is a middle ground. Some coaches may choose to ‘play it straight’ for an hour before giving their fringe players a run-out in the final 30 minutes. Others may look to fit their would-be starting XI into different formations, or try out new combinations between familiar faces.
Each of these approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages, of course, and it is the work of an international coach to use these dates in the calendar to the maximum advantage of his side for the qualifiers and the tournaments to come.
Against Senegal, Grant opted to play his strongest XI, and indeed (almost) the team that he likely would have chosen had the match been a competitive fixture.
There were only two changes from the side that were defeated in the 2015 Cup of Nations final, and both of those were enforced; Jordan Ayew—a substitute in Bata—started in place of the injured Asamoah Gyan, while Frank Acheampong began at left-back instead of Abdul Rahman Baba, another player with fitness concerns.
This looked like Grant’s strongest side.
I don’t think the fact they lost changes much, and indeed, I don’t think that the defeat to Senegal should raise too many concerns about the players involved.
Acheampong, the only player who truly looked out of place on the teamsheet before the match, was actually one of the Black Stars’ key men.
He appeared to relish a left-back role, and one tackle to dispossess Demba Ba inside the box was as precise as it was risky. Men who had been playing in the full-back role their whole careers might have given away a penalty, but the Anderlecht star, typically a forward, executed the sliding challenge to perfection.
Still, even though Acheampong impressed, and even though Ghana only conceded once he had been replaced, there is a case to be made that Jeff Schlupp should start at left-back.
As I argued after the previous friendly, the Leicester City wideman is currently one of very few Ghana players playing consistently well in one of Europe’s major leagues. Apart from Andre Ayew and the aforementioned Baba, how many Black Stars can make that claim?
I was surprised that he was overlooked for the match against Senegal and I would expect him to start the fixture against Mali, It would be his first titularisation for the national side since the opening Afcon 2015 qualifier against Uganda, and a chance to show Grant exactly what he can bring to the full-back berth.
Similarly, it looks likely that there will be another change in defence.
Jonathan Mensah limped out of the match in Le Havre, and having missed training on Monday, it would appear unlikely that he will be in line to feature-let along start-against Mali.
This may be a blessing in disguise.
While I would definitely identify Jomens among Ghana’s two best centre-backs, this would be a good opportunity—against a talented strikeforce—for John Boye and Daniel Amartey to strike up a rapport in the heart of the defence.
In Amartey’s four starts to date for Ghana he has played once in midfield, once in a back three, and twice alongside Mensah.
This would be a good opportunity for the two of them to continue to develop their rapport in the heart of the defence.
In attack, there is a good argument that Richmond Boakye ought to be given a start ahead of either Jordan Ayew or Kwesi Appiah.
The strikers didn’t offer too much against Senegal, particularly not in the second half, and Ghana looked more dangerous when Boakye—who ultimately scored the Stars’ consolation goal—entered the fray.
The powerful forward has looked like becoming one of the ‘great ifs’ of Ghanaian football for sometime. He brings presence to the front line and is the kind of ‘Plan B’ that the squad have been lacking at times. He’s not the finished article just yet, but he is—in my opinion—an option worth investing in.
I would like to see Boakye given a half each with Jordan and Appiah, to see how the likes of Christian Atsu and possibly Andre Ayew adapt to his presence.
You suspect that with widemen such as Afful and Schlupp working hard on the flanks, Boakye may have the opportunity to add to his international tally against a Malian defence that shipped four against Gabon last week.
While the outcome of the match against Mali isn’t of life-and-death importance, it isn’t irrelevant—after all, Ghana haven’t won since the Afcon semi. The Black Stars will be looking to score some goals against a Malian outfit that defended pitifully against Gabon, at the same time, Grant will be looking forward to assessing one or two of his broader squad options while further developing the interaction and understanding among his established starters.
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