MALABO, Equatorial Guinea — “If you were 3-0 up, why didn’t you take off your best players?”, the Ghanaian press hissed at coach Avram Grant after their effortless win over Guinea in the quarter-finals. The Israeli remained defiant, responding “why do I need to?” in a rhetorical question that was already answered at the end of the game.
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After lurching from crisis to crisis, from disappointment to disappointment, there is not really a lot that can be said about the recent years of the Ghana national team that can be placed in the positive column. Despite the consistent names that feature in the squad, there are few which conjure much pleasure for fans. But Asamoah Gyan is one of the rare ones, and despite his injury-ravaged time at the 2015 African Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea thus far during their unexpected run to the final, he remains unrelentingly important to the Black Stars.
Hospitalised with a mild bout of malaria at the start of the tournament, which led him to miss the 1-0 loss to Senegal in the first game, Avram Grant confirmed after the match that Gyan would likely be “forced to play” in the second game against Algeria, which he subsequently did – scoring a last-minute winner to send the Estadio de Mongomo into raptures.
Centre-back John Boye also missed the first game due to malaria – something that no-one seemed to notice – and was discharged from hospital before Gyan too. Yet, he wasn’t thrown back into the starting line-up by manager Avram Grant until the quarter-final. The difference between Boye and Gyan is the extent that the rules are bent for the Black Stars captain.
In the quarter-final, with minutes to go, Gyan found himself in a one-on-one chase for the ball with Guinean goalkeeper Naby Yattara, already 3-0 up. As the striker got to the ball just ahead of the shot-stopper, Yattara studded Gyan in the stomach – a challenge he was promptly red-carded for. Missing out on the 3-0 semi-final victory over Equatorial Guinea, he now faces a race to be fit for the final, with the concern in the camp regarding his fitness representing the negative light they find themselves in.
A source of stagnation and failure to meet expectation, administrative errors, egos and crumbling under pressure mean that the Black Stars have never come close to achieving the dynasty that was expected of them in the late 2000s, at last amalgamating in an air of pessimism about the team. Their run to this year’s African Cup of Nations final has treated these wounds somewhat, but there remains the feeling that they don’t really deserve to be there.
In many people’s eyes thus far, Ghana have played just one half of decent football, in which they truly maximised their potential and looked like genuine candidates for the AFCON crown. The second-half against South Africa in their final group game saw them come back from 1-0 down to ensure safe passage t the wuarter-finals with a 2-1 win – their first over Bafana Bafana in the history of this competition. Bizarrely, they finished top of the toughest group at the tournament on six points, positioning themselves for a game against Guinea in the quarter-finals.
Despite the large scoreline, it was not the most convincing win of the campaign, as their opponents cracked under the pressure and played appallingly. It was an easy job for Ghana, but Grant’s decision to not substitute Gyan created a strange aurora about the camp ahead of the semi-final in Malabo.
Marred by crowd trouble, the Black Stars became the first team to expose Equatorial Guinea as the average side they truly are, as a comprehensive 3-0 win amid some unsavoury scenes saw them float through to the final. Indeed, this was the match in which the team came out with the most credit, remaining remarkably calm and restrained the whole match – as they and their fans were pelted with missiles from a toxic crowd.
“Gyan’s presence is one of mental importance – the effect that he still has on both the fans and the players around him cannot be understated.”
Gyan, who has thus far struggled to score this tournament, hovers around the semi-fit mark ahead of Sunday’s final against Ivory Coast. He has hit the back of the net once this tournament, with what was admittedly a vital winner against Algeria in the second game, but has been evidently short of fitness thus far – appearing slightly slow and out-of-touch in the time he has spent on the pitch. Indeed, his goal against Algeria was a rare moment of magic in a game in which every player on the pitch struggled. It showed why he can still be such an important asset.
With Ghana getting through games without Gyan’s goals, it would appear he is dispensable. The likes of Andre Ayew, Christian Atsu and Kwesi Appiah have got in on the act and the Black Stars have made it through without their main man in top form. But rather than of physical importance, Gyan’s presence is one of mental importance – the effect that he still has on both the fans and the players around him cannot be understated.
— ASAMOAH GYAN (@ASAMOAH_GYAN3) February 5, 2015
A constant feature in this Ghana team for the best part of a decade, Gyan’s importance has been recognized by Grant very quickly, despite not having been in charge for all that long. Indeed, the “forcing him to play” comments will now seem a luxury, as he continues his treatment.
Grant’s attitude to Gyan’s fitness will no doubt be of concern to Al-Ain fans, with his club undoubtedly suffering from Grant’s determination to play him half-fit. But he is now just one step from glory and there is no question that his AGL ambitions are now taking a backseat.
With silverware within touching distance, Grant, the Ghana team and Ghana as a country will be delighted to be in the final at all, but will feel a whole lot better if their talismanic striker is involved.
Crowd trouble marred Ghana's African Nations Cup semi-final win over hosts Equatorial Guinea in Malabo as Ghana fans were forced to flee the stands after being pelted with bottles.
– FULL STORY: Violence mars Ghana semi-final victory
Crowd trouble marred Ghana’s African Nations Cup semi-final win over hosts Equatorial Guinea in Malabo as Ghana fans were forced to flee the stands after being pelted with bottles.
The Ghana Football Association’s Twitter feed described the scene as being “like a war zone” as a police helicopter hovered over the ground while bottles and other objects were being thrown.
The match, which Ghana won 3-0, was suspended for around half an hour as the Black Stars supporters were forced to leave the stands and take refuge on the pitch behind one of the goals after being bombarded with objects from rival fans.
Bottles could be seen scattered across the running track which surrounded the pitch, while there were reports of tear gas being fired into the stands in a bid to control the Equatorial Guinea fans.
A Tweet sent on the Ghana FA’s official account during the match said: “Police helicopter hovers above the pitch with the #Ghana fans in real danger. It’s now like a war zone. #AFCON2015”.
The referee stopped the match and the players were left waiting in the middle of the pitch to find out if it would restart, with the Equatorial Guinea players pleading with their fans to calm down.
Ghana supporters appeared to be escorted away by police through the tunnel, with reports of Equatorial Guinea supporters waiting for them outside the stadium.
Atmosphere still very sensitive in Malabo tonight. Interesting time to be a journalist here. This may not be the end of the story for EG.
— Nick Ames (@NickAmes82) February 6, 2015
— Piers Edwards (@piers_e) February 5, 2015
>/p>The match had eight minutes left to go when the trouble occurred and it looked set to be abandoned, but incredibly was allowed to continue following much deliberation between the match officials, players and coaches and competition officials.
Players cleared bottles off the pitch before the game restarted in the 90th minute. Three minutes of stoppage time were played without incident.
When the match did finish, Ghana coach Avram Grant and counterpart Esteban Becker embraced and there were handshakes between the players.
Equatorial Guinea only stepped in to host the tournament at the 11th hour after Morocco pulled out due to fears regarding the Ebola epidemic.
Having never qualified for a World Cup, Equatorial Guinea’s only previous African Nations Cup campaign was in 2012 when they reached the quarter-finals.
They went one better than that by knocking Tunisia out in the last eight in the most dramatic of circumstances, but that achievement was soured by Thursday night’s events.
Leicester’s Ghanaian player Jeff Schlupp wrote on Twitter: “Absolutely embarrassing! Just let us go to the final and win this tournament in peace! #Ghana #BlackStars.”
— Ghana FA Official (@ghanafaofficial) February 5, 2015
Ghana FA president Kwesi Nyantakyi later told BBC Sport the trouble was an isolated incident which should not overshadow the tournament.
“I don’t think this is a fair commentary of Africa,” he said. “This has been a very successful tournament and this isolated incident of violence will leave a slur on the reputation of African football. It is very unfortunate and it doesn’t deserve that.”
Ghana had taken the lead when Jordan Ayew scored a 42nd minute penalty after Felipe Ovono raced out of his goal and clattered into Kwesi Appiah and then, three minutes later, Wakaso Mubarak finished off a swift counter-attack after Equatorial Guinea had left themselves wide open at the back following a corner. Andre Ayew tapped home a third in the 75th minute.
Equatorial Guinea face a third-place play-off against DR Congo in the same stadium on Saturday, with Ghana and Ivory Coast meeting in the final in Bata a day later.