GHANAsoccernet.com columnist Nii Ayi Tetteh explores the chances of the Black Stars ahead of Saturday’s showdown against Malawi and believes the four-time African Champions can douse The Flames on their own turf.
Resting on the banks of the Lilongwe River along the main north-south highway is Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe.
On a regular day, locals go about their routine without much fanfare. However, this Saturday October 13th, that routine would most likely be impinged upon.
The noise levels are expected to rise, people would come from far and near draped in national colours.
Journalists would be on the alert to capture the sights and sounds of an eventful day as fans make their way to the Civo Stadium.
Indeed, there is good reason for the expected fanfare. Ghana’s senior national team, the Black Stars are in town to challenge their Malawian counterparts.
The prize? A ticket to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in South Africa next January 2013.
You would think that on the basis of pedigree and Ghana having taken a 2-0 advantage from the 1st leg in Accra, Malawians would be content with the formality of the 2nd leg right?
But no, times have changed. Fans and managers of the Flames, as the Malawian national team are known, share a dogged believe that they can outscore the Black Stars and qualify for the AFCON.
Malawi’s coach, Kinna Phiri is the one leading the crusade with daring statements, sometimes a little bit too much. In the land of the Queen, he will be appropriately labelled ‘loquacious’.
Well, you can expect that from a very passionate coach about his team. But when he is joined by the Football Association of Malawi (FAM), then you realise that Malawi would pull out all the stops in orchestrating a major football upset.
In their eyes, this goes beyond a football match; it is a battle that can win the war. Yes war! That is what the FAM has declared on Ghana. For them the stakes couldn’t be higher, win massively to overturn the 1st leg result, make a 3rd AFCON appearance and more importantly enjoy its 5 minutes of fame on the international football landscape. But can they? Well, the battle lines have clearly been drawn. Come let’s find out.
The mood in camp
If sheer confidence won football games, then the Flames would go into tomorrow’s game with a head start. Right after the game ended in Accra on September 8, Kinnah Phiri wasted no time in declaring that Malawi played better and they would definitely eliminate the Black Stars.
At that time, he believed that the return encounter would have been played on the synthetic pitch at Kamuzu stadium in Blantyre to favour the Flames who are used to that surface.
Safety concerns however prompted FAM to shift the game to the naturally grassed Civo stadium in Lilongwe.
But that ‘set back’ hasn’t rattled the Flames since Kinnah Phiri hasn’t stopped talking.
As mentioned earlier, FAM has joined in. In midweek, FAM commercial manager Casper Jangale declared war.
He called on Malawians to paint the Civo stadium red while charging the players to avenge the humiliation their forefathers suffered at the hands of Ghana 50 years ago when Ghana beat them 12-0.
On the face of it, it might seem like the Malawians are high on confidence but then again all of this extreme enthusiasm might just put too much pressure on the players who might just choke under the heavy weight of an expectant nation.
While the Malawians were busy whipping their nationals into unnecessary frenzy, their opponents, the Black Stars camped in Kenya ahead of Saturday.
The camp provided the perfect escape from prying Ghanaian media and fans. Yes it may have, but for Coach Kwesi Appiah, he would still be anxious for a number of reasons.
The win over Malawi in the first leg was not convincing with individual brilliance bailing the Stars out. Then again, since taking over the technical reigns, he is yet to win an away match and the situation was compounded last month when the Black Stars surprisingly lost 2-0 to Liberia.
Appiah would be desperate to restore some measure of confidence and respectability to the Stars.
While Appiah mulled over these issues, FIFA added to the pressure by awarding 3 points to Zambia, Ghana’s 2014 World Cup qualification group opponents, who made a protest against Sudan for fielding an unqualified player in a match Sudan originally won 2-0.
The ruling not only put Zambia 3 clear points ahead of Ghana’s 3 but also in pole position to qualify from the group. So, despite repeated assurances from officialdom that the Stars were focused on the AFCON qualifier, it will be hard to believe that the FIFA ruling would not play on the minds of the players and the entire team.
The upside however is that, it should challenge the Stars to develop a winning mentality since any let up would cost Ghana dearly and that begins tomorrow in Malawi. But how would the game pan out? Here is my tactical view:
The Battle Plan
For Malawi, their work is clearly cut out; win by a clear 3 goal margin or win 2-0 to force the game into extra time.
With this at the back of Phiri’s mind, I see him departing from the 4-5-1 formation he used in Accra. Though the plan worked well; containing and crowding out the Stars in midfield and making them very incohesive, I still believe Phiri would like to get off the blocks early and score to calm nerves.
The team’s undoing in Accra was its inability to convert their chances. Phiri has thus strengthened the side with 2 veteran strikers in Esau Kanyenda and Chiukepo Msowoya ostensibly to provide much needed experience in attack.
I foresee one of those 2 teaming up with Robin Ngalande and new sensation Gabadihno Mhango, who both came on and did pretty well in Accra, in a 3 pronged attack while Frank and Dave Banda are sacrificed in midfield thus changing the team’s shape to an offensive 4-3-3 to aggressively attack the Black Stars.
Phiri would however be concerned about his defence which would be without James Sangala and Limbikani Mzava, both suspended from a red card and yellow card accumulation respectively.
For the Black Stars, taking a 2-0 lead and only needing a draw to qualify, football convention would dictate the Ghana lines up in a very pragmatic way; a variant of the 4-5-1 on the defence and then 4-2-3-1 on the offense.
Appiah has shown that he is a stickler for this formation and I would rather be surprised if he shaped out differently. Indeed, it is the most practical and would rely heavily on the 3 players behind Asamoah Gyan.
That responsibility would fall on Christian Atsu, Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah/Abdul Warris to support Anthony Annan and his defensive midfield partner as the team’s play evolve defensively and offensively.
The wide players would also have to work overtime to support the lateral defenders where Ghana still shows weakness.
That is why John Pantsil has been recalled to augment the defensive line. Now, I can boldly say that if the aforementioned players are able to bring their ‘A’ game, the worst result for Ghana would be a draw.
Malawi’s revenge and qualification would then have to be put on ice, besides it’s only a football battle, it’s not fatal, and they would live to fight another day! Now, that sounds like something Mr. Phiri would say.