WITH restrained breath, Ghanaians have waited almost impatiently for the Black Stars to slam into action at the Egypt 2019 African Cup of Nations. Today, they will hit the ground running with a cagey Group F fixture against the Squirrels of Benin.
More than 100 hours have spirited away since the surprise-filled tournament roared off last Friday – and the talk now is all about the Stars kicking their first ball in a one-month campaign they have sworn to subdue.
And, as they cross swords with the Squirrels of Benin at the Ismailia Stadium at 8.pm GMT, the Stars know all-too well they carry the hopes and aspirations of a nation that is hungrily hunting for its first continental Holy Grail since 1982.
So far, the tournament has recorded a catalogue of stunning performances from the so-called minnows with Madagascar holding Guinea to a sweltering 2-2 draw – and Uganda ditching DR Congo 2-0 in opening games.
It is perspicuously becoming obvious that the gap between the big guns and the minnows has pleasantly narrowed – which is why Benin could ram in as tough customers in tonight’s heart-pumping Group F second game.
The two teams have met 14 times since 1981 with Ghana enjoying a lion’s share of the bite – having won seven and drawing five. That stranglehold over their West African neighbours is expected to serve as the needed fillip as they seek Benin’s scalp to put themselves in pole position for next round of games.
Ghanaian-doubting-Thomases began to cast qualms about the readiness of the Stars in the Egypt campaign after they were licked 1-0 by Namibia before being hooked to a frustrating stalemate by South Africa in their last preparatory games.
However, Ghana’s captain Andre Dede Ayew says the Stars are ready for battle and will dart for the jugular in a bid to fetch the desired result.
“It’s going to be a pretty difficult contest as every team here in Egypt is prepared to represent their countries well. However, we’re hungrier for the win and we ‘ll work very hard at it,” Ayew told the Times Sports yesterday.
Captivatingly, it is the first time Ghana and Benin are clashing at a Nations Cup tournament proper. In 1991, ahead of the Senegal ’92 Nations Cup tournament, it were the Stars who swaggered away with a 4-0 walloping of the Squirrels in the qualifiers in Accra, having drawn 0-0 in Cotonou.
Sadly, the 1992 tournament went up in smoke as the Stars crashed at the lottery of penalty shoot-out to Cote d’Ivoire, a gloomy spectacle that agonizingly repeated itself in 2015 to the same side – not to talk about the Angola 2010 grand final loss to Egypt as well.
As a matter of fact, the Stars have dazzled into the semis in their last six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, which makes them one of the ‘dangerously silent’ favourites of the Egypt tournament even though they are parading as many as nine debutants including goalkeeper Felix Annang.
Annang, the only local player is considered the safest pair of hands behind Richard Ofori, though the Asante Kotoko man is Coach Kwesi Appiah’s third choice.
Other first-timers are Lumor Agbenyenu (Goztepe AS, Turkey), Kassim Nuhu (Hoffenheim, Germany), Joseph Aidoo (Genk, Belgium), Joseph Attamah (Basaksehir, Turkey), Samuel Owusu (Cukaricki, Serbia), Thomas Agyepong (Hibernian, Scotland), Caleb Ekuban (Tranzonspor, Turkey) and Kwabena Owusu (Legares, Spain).
This rich bevy of players may lack some Nations Cup experience, but they make up that deficit with an embarrassingly rich bundle of talent. Together with experienced limbs like skipper Ayew and evergreen Asamoah Gyan as well as midfield-loom Kwadwo Asamoah, Jordan Ayew and in-form Atletico midfielder Thomas Partey, Ghana should be able to take care of Benin who are making their first AFCON appearance since Angola 2010.
The Squirrels have never made it past the group stage and Coach Michel Dussuyer would be counting on the side’s talisman – Stephane Sessegnon and Huddersfield Town strikerSteve Mounie to step up the plate and rewrite history for Benin.
Though not in the very finest of shapes, Sessegnon has netted 13 times in 22 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. Interestingly, he is yet to score at the tournament itself in five appearances – and would love to set the net ablaze when the chance presents itself today.
Experts say Ghana is odds on favourites to open their account with a handsome win tonight, but it would not come without one hell of a fight after 90 minutes. This is more so when the Squirrels held the Stars to a pulsating 1-1 draw in their last encounter in 2017.C