MOMENTS of jollity and conviviality took centre stage at the Accra Sports Stadium at the weekend as Ghana’s Black Stars accounted for Kenya’s Harambee Stars 1-0 to hop to the apex of Group F of the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Birthday-boy Caleb Ansah Ekuban, who was making his debut for Ghana, put the icing on his own saccharine-cake with a fine finish eight minutes away from the final whistle.
It may not be the cameo, chocolate-box performance that Ghanaians were fervently expecting on Saturday, but it was tidy enough to knock off the Kenyans from the summit – as the nation hopes for a favourable draw on April 12 for the Egypt Nations Cup.
After all, that may have been what the Stars bargained for all afternoon in front of a fastidiously enchanting mammoth home crowd.
With the two sides having already booked tickets for Egypt, the evening staggered off on a calm fashion until the seventh minute when Newcastle winger Christian Atsu scampered down the right but lost his balance as tried to make his way into the area.
In the absence of a goal in the first stanza in which the Kenyans frustrated their opponents with sequence of good passing manoevres, fast-breaks, interlaced with some rugged defending, it was Atsu’s silky skill, deft touches, flair, adroit dribbling and supreme technique that lightened up the stadium.
Stand-in captain Andre Dede Ayew was to send the crowd into raptures in the 33rd minute after bravely poking home the opener from a rebound, but the controversial Referee Joshua Bondo adjudged Dede to have impaired goalkeeper Patrick Matasi before scoring. The crowd booed at the decision, thinking Matasi may have made a mountain out of a molehill.
It was hugely anticipated. Kenya chief coach Sebastien Migne’s strategy was to frustrate the Stars, soak the pressure and catch them on the counter. It worked considerably.
Kenya had always found Ghana a hard nut to shell – the Stars pushing a ‘prussic’ 12-2 scoreline down the throat of the East Africans in their own backyard in the capital Nairobi on December 12, 1965. That humbling result had perpetually haunted Kenyan football to bits.
It explained why the Harambee Stars wildly celebrated the first leg victory in September last year, a fortuitous own goal by Nicholas Opoku.
But any thoughts of repeating the 1965 carnage to avenge for last year’s stunning loss, evaporated by the minutes after the Harambee Stars produced a decent show, robustly emphasizing that they had come a long a way.
Indeed, Kenya’s Francis Kahata nearly caused a stir just after the re-start after outpacing an all-nervy blundering central defender John Boye to unleash a thunderbolt from an acute angle, but goalkeeper Richard Ofori’s eye-catching finger-tip save salvaged the dodgy situation.
Momentarily, that let-off appeared to have sparked the dare-devils in the Stars as they launched a series of onslaughts with Atsu, Jordan Ayew, Thomas Teye Partey, Emmanuel Boateng, Andre Ayew and Mubarak Wakaso all famished to break the jinx. They were not successful.
That remained the pattern all evening. But somebody must score for Ghana. The Stars needed the maximum points desperately – at least for the bragging rights – at least to top the group. Nobody had really given a dog’s chance to Ekuban; perhaps, the man who introduced him into the game on the hour mark did.
And, just as the game seemed to be heading for what would have been a disappointing draw, Ekuban popped up to strike gold as his effort tore through the fingers of Matasi to seal the day for the Stars, on nine points – two better than their impressive opponents.
The cheers that greeted the goal may have been heard loudly in Villafranca di Verona, Italy, where Ekuban was born. It was certainly a memorable day for the 25-year-old forward.
His dad, Reverend Kobina Ekuban – a District Elder for the Pentecostal Assembly of Churches in Italy may have fasted and prayed for his son to have an unforgettable debut for Ghana. He got it!
BY JOHN VIGAH