Crunch time for Ghana as Russia dream tantalises

Published on: 30 August 2017

It is what one would typically call -- in clichéd sporting parlance -- a 'do-or-die' few days for Ghana's football team as they take on Congo in two 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Between Friday and next Tuesday, Ghana's dream of a fourth straight World Cup appearance could receive a significant boost, or their road to Russia could be dead at the halfway stage.

Ghana trail group leaders Egypt by five points after picking up only two points from their opening two games, including a goalless draw at home to Uganda. It was one of the results that effectively left former boss Avram Grant a dead man walking, even before he took the side to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and lost in the semi-finals.

Grant's replacement, Kwesi Appiah, is hoping he can work a minor miracle as only the winner of each group will qualify for Russia, beginning this Friday when the Black Stars host Congo in Kumasi.

"For me there is nothing like 'it's over'," Appiah told KweséESPN. "The most important thing is to win our games and leave the rest. That is our belief. We have four games. Once we have won them we will see what happens because a lot can happen."

Appiah would know, given how the Black Stars reached the 2014 showpiece under his leadership. The conventional wisdom then was that Zambia would be too good for Ghana at the group stage. Appiah and his team proved that wrong.

Then, when Ghana drew Egypt in the play-offs, there was almost an air of resignation among Black Stars fans before a stunning 6-1 win in the first leg restored their faith.

Six points from the next two games will not change Ghana's situation much, especially if Egypt pick up maximum points against Uganda, but the Black Stars would stay in reckoning ahead of the arrival of the Pharaohs in November.

"If we don't win those two games it is over for us. We simply have to win them because that will set us up really well for the Egypt game at home later," defender Jonathan Mensah says.

Ghana's home record in World Cup qualifiers overall will inspire a lot of belief. The Black Stars have not lost in qualifying at home since a George Weah-inspired Liberia side beat Ghana at the Accra Sports Stadium in 2001. Since then, in 13 World Cup qualifying matches at home, Ghana have won 10 and drawn three.

The overall record of 24 games, home and away, is impressive too, with 16 wins out of 24 games, three losses, and five draws.

The reality is that this is not just Egypt's top slot to lose when they visit Accra, but that maybe Ghana's level, and the individual performances of many of the players, has dropped significantly too.

The Black Stars were brilliant in an Afcon qualifying win over Ethiopia, but then lost back-to-back friendlies against Mexico and USA in July. Key players like Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew have spent considerable time in the treatment room, and when they have played the impact has been minimal.

Youngsters like Ebenezer Ofori and Thomas Agyepong have looked promisingbut can't get games at club level, while Appiah's goalkeeper roaster is dominated by benchwarmers.

The Ghana boss will be hopeful it won't have a telling impact on the performance of the team on Friday, because a defeat is likely to see the rest of it rendered irrelevant.

Source: Michael Oti Adjei, KweséESPN