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Sports Features Wed, 9 Sep 2009

South Africa 2010: Time To Put Sentiment Aside

christopher opoku

Before I head into the basis and thrust of this note, I would like to congratulate the Black Stars for becoming the first African Nation to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Kudos to all the players, technical staff and indeed the Ghana Football Association for chalking this remarkable feat. I will also like to reserve congratulations for the head coach Milovan Rajevac for orchestrating the turn of events. I was one of his harshest critics and at the time, I thought that his $45,000-a-month salary was not justified. Once again, I hold my hands up and I openly declare that I have been proved wrong, but I am absolutely delighted that I was wrong.

Having said that, it is time to look into the future with respect to the World Cup itself and with it comes the important question; Are the Black Stars just going to make up the numbers at the World Cup or do they want to do well by at least going one better than the second round placing in Germany? If we just want to make up the numbers, then sentiment, sympathy and concern should be our mantra with regard to selection of players. If, on the other hand, we want to do well, then it is time to be ruthless and firmly put sentiment aside!

Yesterday’s game showed clearly that some players would be better utilised coming from the bench and others deserve to start. Oh yes! I will name names because I firmly believe that Ghanaians would want the Black Stars to do well at the World Cup and we need to field the best starting eleven and a strong bench to do the business. I will start with the first goal scorer, Sulley Muntari.

Muntari is a hugely gifted player and is very important to the Black Stars. I mean you don’t score 13 goals in 48 games for Ghana if you are not good. However, we have to determine whether his overall play would be beneficial over 90 minutes. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that Muntari lacks pace, hangs on to the ball too much and also tends to lunge in with bad tackles which get him booked. Also, whenever he starts for Ghana, it is always him trying to find Michael Essien or vice-versa and it results in about 30 square passes before the ball reaches the penalty area. He also tends to cut in instead of sticking to his primary role, which is to provide crosses from the left and tends to cut inside instead, meaning that he can be tactically indisciplined at times. His major plus is that he possesses a powerful shot from distance. The other thing is that he is largely effective only over 60 minutes. A statistical view of his time with Inter Milan last season showed that he completed 90 minutes only three times. With this, I firmly believe that he can be utilised from the bench 30 minutes to time and his impact will be devastating, rather than starting him for Ghana and in effect losing the pace that can threaten other teams.

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Now to Stephen Appiah. He is much loved by Ghanaians all over for his down-to-earth nature, humility and superb leadership skills and it was wonderful to see him lead Ghana to World Cup qualification on his 60th cap for the Black Stars, but sadly, that was all there was to it. In spite of his achievements in the past, Rajevac’s decision to start him came as a surprise to many soccer pundits and perhaps unknowingly, the Serbian Coach will have seen that the captain will be better suited to the bench. The blunt truth is that Appiah lacks match fitness because he has not played club football for almost 2 years, and whilst training with Brescia might keep him physically fit, it is no substitute for playing competitively week in, week out. It was abundantly clear that his soul is willing but the flesh is weak and he became more or less a passenger in the game, even if at one stage, he was unlucky not to score against Sudan. What he does possess is a football brain and he could also be better utilised coming on for the last 20 to 25 minutes for Ghana. He can change situations. What I want to make clear is that the Black Stars should not be used to carry Appiah! He has to resolve his 2.3 million euro issues with Fenerbahce and find a club to play for, or at worst, return to Fenebahce to complete his contract which is due to end next year because if he fails to get playing time, then Rajevac might have to take a very difficult decision to drop the talismanic midfielder from the World Cup roster. So the message to Appiah is, find a club or you run the risk of missing the boat to South Africa!

Before the World Cup in Germany, the then Ghana coach, Ratomir Djukovic took a risk in playing two very promising central defenders during Ghana’s World Cup qualifying campaign. Issah Ahmed was then Asante Kotoko’s skipper and Iliasu Shilla had just signed for the Porcupine Warriors after an excellent season with King Faisal. Ahmed made it to Egypt 2006 and Iliasu was a revelation at the 2006 World Cup. Fortunately for us, we now have two outstanding central defenders in the just ended Glo Premier League; PLB’s defender of the year, Lee Addy and King Faisal captain Awudu Nafiu. I am bringing their names up because I firmly believe that one of them, or Isaac Vorsah, should partner John Mensah in central defence. The current pair of Mensah and Eric Addo lacks the requisite pace to quickly react against speedy strikers and had Ghana faced better opposition yesterday, Addo in particular would have been in trouble. I still maintain that even though he is tactically endowed, he is by trade a defensive midfielder and so shouldn’t also start for Ghana. He will also be better employed coming on from the bench to close out games for Ghana.

Overall, it was obvious that the absences of Prince Tagoe, Kwadwo Asamoah and Opoku Agyemang affected Ghana’s play yesterday and Matthew Amoah, who scored three goals in the previous two matches because of good service from the afore mentioned players, was forced to feed off scraps throughout the match and did not receive the required service to get the goals and at times had to drop deep.. The point is, we cannot play a lone striker system with a static midfield.. We have to play a dynamic midfield with pace and it is my firm belief that Tagoe, Asamoah and Opoku Agyemang, with Essien and Anthony Annan just behind them, would firmly benefit Ghana. Just imagine a bench that includes the likes of Muntari, Appiah, Addo, Laryea Kingston, Asamoah Gyan (if he doesn’t start) among others and it is clear that Milovan Rajevac has deepened the depth of the squad and I am particularly thankful that the last two games can be used to assess other players so that by the time Ghana goes for CAN 2010 in January, she will be doing so with a powerful squad.

If we drop sentiment in favour of realism and if we are ruthless in team selection instead of carrying someone out of concern, my firm belief is that Ghana can go all the way in South Africa. Sounds crazy? Well, if we do the right things I don’t see why not. But the celebrations must come to an end and the planning should start now!

Source: Opoku, Christopher
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