By 1800 hours GMT, today, you can be guaranteed one thing; the sight and sounds of Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi, will not be like any other day.
Depending on the outcome of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Group D qualifier between Ghana’s Black Stars and Zambia’s Copper Bullets otherwise known as Chipolopolo, the city will either be dead silent or festive.
Silent, when local staple, fufu, goes waste and funerals are deserted; or festive, when bars or “drinking spots” as they are popularly called are filled for brisk business while funerals are turned into “black parties”. Which score-line triggers which sight and sound? Well, that’s an easy guess, since we know which team is playing host.
In the lead up to this crunch game, Zambia have been very busy creating unnecessary tension ahead of the game. Granted, that a draw for Ghana or a win by either side, which seals qualification to the last qualification round, has raised the stakes of the game, but for Zambia to descend into the gutter to falsely accuse Ghana of deliberate machinations to undermine their preparations is a new low for the 2012 Nations Cup winners.
The latest accusation, made last Wednesday, was that, Ghana in attempt to frustrate the Zambians, deliberately denied them clearance to land their chartered aircraft in Kumasi and instead asked them to disembark in Accra and travel, in Zambians words “by a bad road” to Kumasi. Now, a simple check by the Zambians would have revealed to them that Kumasi’s airport is domestic and doesn’t accommodate international flights not to speak of the maintenance works going on which doesn’t allow even domestic flights to land at night. All these mind games make the Zambians look desperate and nervy; like they are preparing an excuse for an imminent loss, but then again, it could all be part of a grand scheme to divert the focus of the Black Stars.
That focus to end a winless streak spanning 21 years when the Black Stars last beat the Zambians at the 1992 Nations Cup and regain bragging rights after back to back losses at the 2012 Nations Cup and the first leg of the World Cup qualifier in Ndola, Zambia cannot be easily diverted. After all the talk, the action will be on the green grass of the Baba Yara stadium today at 1600 Hours GMT, when no-nonsense Algerian referee, Haimoudi Djamel, whistles for kickoff. To beat the Zambians, this is the strategy I expect Stars coach, Kwesi Appiah, to employ.
Forget about the threat of goalie Kennedy Mweene and stalwart defender Stoppila Sunzu, the industry of Captain Christopher Katongo and predatory instincts of Jacob Mulenga or Emmanuel Mayuka; the real threat from Zambia lies in the shape of midfielder cum winger, Rainford Kalaba of DR Congo’s TP Mazembe. Kalaba is blessed with flair and vision and can open up defenses with an odd pass or cut in skillfully from the wings when deployed there. He is also free kick expert and generally a goal threat having scored 10 goals in 52 appearances. So, whether Kalaba operates from the middle or the wings, special attention will have to be paid to this intelligent player as he will most likely be mobile, swapping positions with another speedy winger Fwayo Tembo. Black Stars defense should consider man marking him or play very tightly as a unit and cut the space and time that Kalaba could have and which he will exploit to a devastating effect.
DON’T DROP RABIU
It sure is a piece of good news that big name players, Michael Essien and Kevin Prince Boateng, have ended their international retirement and returned to the Stars, good news indeed, but it also brings along a tactical challenge to Kwesi Appiah. In their absence, a certain Rabiu Mohammed has held the fort admirably. Rabiu has gone about the job in unfashionable but intelligent way. His football IQ in reading and breaking up play in the middle of the park has been top notch. He also uses his physique to a great effect to retain possession and cuts space to opposing midfielders. Indeed, if there is any player to track and nullify Kalaba as mentioned earlier, Rabiu is your ‘got to go guy’. Ordinarily, he should be one of the first names on the team sheet but with the return of the super stars, Coach Kwesi Appiah may be tempted to drop Rabiu to accommodate them. What do you do when you have a player of Michael Essien’s pedigree and experience? Essien will bring that and more. He will provide the fear factor and a goal scoring threat having scored 9 goals in 52 caps but considering that Essien hasn’t played this season and his fitness may not be up to Rabiu’s level, he is best served starting from the bench to be introduced when the Zambians are physically and mentally worn in the second half. So, Mr. Kwesi Appiah, whatever you do, do not drop Rabiu Mohammed.
KEEP GYAN IN THE HOLE
Another tactical change Coach Appiah may be tempted to make is to push Captain Asamoah Gyan back into the lead striker’s role. Coach Appiah found a winning formula last March when he played Gyan behind striker Abdul Majeed Warris in the game against Sudan. Gyan, who is slower than before, has thus had the freedom to evade markers without the physical demands of being the lone striker. He has thrived in the hole, scoring 6 goals in the last 4 games. However, as mentioned above, the coach may be tempted to push Gyan back to the lone striker’s role to free up one spot to accommodate another returnee Prince Boateng to play in the hole. But why fix it if it isn’t broke? Smart money will be to keep Gyan in the hole and let Warris lead the lines to do early damage. Victory over Zambia should be a matter of course if coach Appiah sorts out this selection headache and the players also do their part by focusing and dying on the pitch; like the mantra of famous Hiplife duo, R2Bees, they should refuse to be beaten, having come this far; victory is a must! Walahi!