One of the most ferocious games in World Cup history will be waged at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al-Wakrah today when the bourgeoning Black Stars of Ghana cross swords with old foes Uruguay in a Group H cracker that has a lot at stake.
It is one game – probably the only game everybody seems to be talking about here in Doha today, conscious of the heart-thumping story between them.
Twelve years ago at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Uruguay did the unthinkable to Ghana at the quarter-final stage as they eliminated the Stars in the most excruciating manner after Luis Suarez scooped out a last-minute goal-bound goal from his net.
A penalty – instead of a goal – was awarded for that transgression, but forward Asamoah Gyan would go ahead to blow off the God-sent golden opportunity.
An ensuing penalty shoot-out after extra-time did not favour Ghana as the Stars were denied the glory of becoming the first African team to make it to the last-four berth of the World Cup.
Today, Ghanaians have always look back at that game with lots of pain and anguish.
That agonising moment is still emblazoned on the minds of most Ghanaians.
The game’s experts have always contended the goal-bound effort from Dominic Adiyah would have stood had the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology been introduced at the time. Maybe!
Somehow, fate has brought the two combatants to the ‘sword’ again and the ‘demon’ who broke the nation’s heart – Suarez, is still a pivotal part of the Uruguay team – and would surely attract the cynosure of all eyes this afternoon. He rolled off from the bench in their second group game against Portugal; but who knows, he may be on the starting list this time around.
Whilst the Uruguayans are talking tough ahead of the game, their Ghanaian counterparts are keeping a low profile, and say they are focusing on victory.
Indeed, sweat merchant of the team, Otto Addo, has brushed aside thoughts of revenge today.
“That painful memory will not provide extra incentive for the Black Stars; we are just focused on victory.”
Addo’s skipper Andre Dede Ayew – the only surviving member of that gorgeous Ghana team of 2010, thinks same.
“Football’s not about taking revenge. We simply want to win and make our country proud,” Ayew told FIFA.
“I just hope whatever result we get is enough to make it through to the next round. We have to focus on the here and now; what happened before is irrelevant today. We have to do our best to make the continent proud, because playing the World Cup is actually for the whole of Africa, not just Ghana alone. And that’s really all we intend to focus on.”
Ghanaian supporters here are not really enthused about that line of thought, believing revenge against the two-time world champions Uruguay, is everything.
The Stars have been imposing so far, losing 2-3 to Portugal in the opener and recovering early to thump South Korea 3-2 in an absorbing Group H game.
However, the concern of many is the team’s lack of concentration that has seen them leak two goals in a two-minute blitz against Portugal and South Korea. That is quite disconcerting and could come to haunt the Stars if the technical team fail to pluck that loophole at the centre-back pivoted around Mohammed Salisu.
Worryingly, too, the Stars are not very offensive-minded and it is the reason they should have a water-tight back and not the kind that has let in five goals in two games.
Positively, the Ghanaians – the youngest and lowest-ranked team in the tournament (61st) are able to create chances when they pour out in torrents.
So far, Thomas Partey has failed to glow in midfield as expected – with his string of spectacularly penetrative passes almost missing. When he gets it right today, the confident-looking Ghana should have a more fluid game that would galvanise the team to qualifying for the last-16 since 2010.
Player of the moment – Mohammed Kudus, will be expected once again to lighten up the stadium with his intricate runs and adroit dribbling finesse which has drawn a lot of affection to him in Doha.
One of Ghana’s hardworking offensive players, Jordan Ayew, has also had a fantastic tournament as he turned double provider in the Stars’ 3-2 win against South Korea. His incisive crosses and deep runs have always been a nightmare to opponents.
Inaki Williams – the team’s arrowhead, is lacking the self-assurance and character to rip defenders open and firing at goal. He needs to dig deep into himself and pluck it. He has it!
As suggested earlier, La Celeste (The Sky Blue) – as the Uruguayans are nicknamed, will come hard at the Stars – right from the get-go – aware of the fact that only a win can give them a fighting chance to the next round.
So far, the South Americans – who still possess five of the 2010 World Cup players in their fold, have not been fatal going forward, having failed to find the net in 180 minutes as they shared the spoils with South Korea before slumping 0-2 to Portugal.
That, however, does not downplay the potency of their attack; they can be dangerous when let loose with the likes of 35-year-olds Suarez and Edinson Cavani a constant bother.
Diego Alonso, their trusted coach, remains optimistic of progressing.
“We are looking for victory against Ghana; there is no doubt about it. If we have to make modifications, that is what we will do,” said Coach Alonso, as his charges find themselves bottom of the table.
It certainly would be a nail-biting, energy-sapping evening of football.
Hopefully, the Stars will survive the tempest – and they have promised to do so.
Kick-off: 6pm local time (3pm GMT).
FROM JOHN VIGAH, DOHA-QATAR