Will Ghana or South Africa clinch CAN last eight?
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Having come back from the brink against Algeria, Ghana need to maintain that fighting spirit with a win over South Africa in Mongomo on Tuesday night. It’s the final match in Group C and it will be played amid the passion and permutations that are the features of any major international tournament.
Victory will assure Ghana of a place in the last eight for the fifth consecutive CAN. However they can still progress with a draw provided the match in Malabo between group leaders Senegal and Algeria ends in a stalemate.
Ghana boss Avram Grant considers the South Africans a dangerous outfit. "South Africa have impressed me a lot," said the 59-year-old. "I saw them during the qualifying rounds when they beat Nigeria. They’ve played impressive football in this tournament even if results haven’t gone their way but in a tournament it’s not just about playing good football, it’s about qualifying."
That Ghana stand so close to the last eight is intricately linked to Asamoah Gyan. The 29-year-old skipper missed the first game against Senegal after being diagnosed with malaria. Ghana lost 2-1 following Moussa Sow’s goal with the last kick of the game.
Gyan returned for the second match against Algeria and rescued his country with the winning goal in the dying seconds.
Since he took over at the end of last year, Grant has been keen to reconstruct a team ethic among the Black Stars. That appeared to have vanished last summer in Brazil with the acerbic rows over world cup appearance fees and the tactics of the then coaching staff.
Though keen to burnish the collective concept among a cluster of youngsters in the squad, Grant has not hesitated to lavish compliments on his captain – not only for his contribution on the field but also for his demeanour off it.
"I think that goal against Algeria wasn’t from his leg … it was from his heart," said Grant. "I want it to be the symbol for Ghana for the future."
Ghana is seeking its first Cup of Nations title since 1982. They reached the final five years ago in Angola but were beaten by Egypt.
With three consecutive world cup campaigns to their credit, there is an expectation of success at the CAN.
"Anybody who is given the chance to play for Ghana is ready to die for the nation,” said Gyan. “That’s what I believe in. The game against South Africa will be about mental toughness."
Judged from this stance, Ghana’s acumen should see them succeed. The South Africans will go into the match harbouring doubts about whether they possess the killer instinct necessary for the trophies. In their opening match against the much vaunted Algerians, South Africa had them on the ropes but when the chance came to go 2-0 up from the penalty spot, Tokelo Rantie missed the kick.
A 3-1 loss was brutal and should have been instructive. The South Africans held the lead in their second game against Senegal but squandered that too and had to settle for a draw.
Should the South Africans need a fillip as they head into the final game, the record books show that Ghana have never beaten them at the CAN.
However South Africa coach Shakes Mashaba rejected that strand of encouragement. "Don’t forget that in everyone’s life there’s a first time for everything," he philosophised. "The game in Mongomo might well be the first time they beat us. We know we’ve been beating them but that will count for nothing in this game."
"We’re living in the current. We must be in the moment. We want to win this game and of course it will be a good thing to improve this record of Ghana not beating us."
To move into their second consecutive last eight berth, South Africa need to overcome Ghana by two clear goals if Algeria beat Senegal.
If Senegal overcome Algeria then any kind of victory will do. Essentially a stalemate is not an option for South Africa.
South Africa skipper Dean Furman said his team mates had been encouraged by the surprises so far in the tournament.
Gabon and Burkina Faso were expected to move into the second phase from Group A but Congo and hosts Equatorial Guinea will feature instead on 31 January.
"We’ve been proving people wrong since the start of the qualifiers for this tournament,” said the Doncaster Rovers midfielder. “No one expected us to go away and win games. Everyone expected Nigeria to cruise through our qualification group. They struggled and went out."
Nigeria, who won the CAN in South Africa two years ago, are a vivid example of failure to consolidate the gains made from a more than respectable run to the last 16 in Brazil.
Furman says that with the under-20 team qualifying for the African championships in March, the feeling in the senior squad is of a bright competitive future.
But to misquote Mashaba, what of the current? What of the moment?
"We know as a team that we can cause upsets and that we can prove people wrong," said the 26-year-old. "This tournament has shown that it’s open for anyone. There have been teams upsetting the odds and if the odds are stacked up against us, then great, we’ll go and prove the odds wrong."
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