Report: Africa Cup of Nations 2015

Gyan beats Malaria and leads Ghana to victory

A Ghana fan cheers for the team during their match against Algeria  in Mongomo
A Ghana fan cheers for the team during their match against Algeria in Mongomo Reuters/Mike Hutchings

It was the stuff of legend. A player struck down by illness just before his country’s first match, rises from his sick bed and thrashes home the only goal with virtually the last kick of a must win game. It happened on a sultry Friday night in Mongomo. Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan returned from a bout of malaria and fired past Algeria keeper Rais M’Bolhi deep into stoppage time.

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Following their last minute loss to Senegal on the opening day of Group C on January 19, Ghana needed three points against Algeria to relaunch their Cup of Nations campaign. Cometh the hour … cometh the Gyan.

Ghana coach Avram Grant paid tribute to his captain. “Usually there’s no chance a player can play 90 minutes after what he had. But Ghana has players like this, players with heart. I don’t think there’s a striker in the world who has scored so many goals in important games, who has heart and is a very nice person and a good captain.

“What he did for us against Algeria, to play without a training session … 95 minutes, to score and be concentrated in the last moment … It’s amazing.”

The explosion of ecstacy on the Ghana bench was the picture of night. Four days earlier they had suffered the blow of a last minute goal when Moussa Sow swept past Razak Brimah to give Senegal a 2-1 victory.

The substitutes sprinted along the side of the pitch to behind the Algerian goal where Gyan was bathing in the delight of the delirious fans. The weight of joyous bodies on top of him must have had the Ghana medical staff wincing.

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Gyan was the last man back to the centre circle as the players and substitutes gathered in ad hoc positions for the formalities of the final whistle. Desperate Algerians restarted but as the ball was punted forward, it was all over. Ghanaian and Algerian players slumped to the turf. Some nursing the pain, others yielding to the pleasure.

The symmetry was instructive.

“This is a sport with a lot of emotions,” mused Ghana coach Avram Grant. “I didn’t like it in the game against Senegal when they scored in the last minute. Now we’ve scored in the last minute to beat Algeria. But I think we deserved it. We were the better team.

“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Algeria. They are Africa’s top team but we played well. We controlled the midfield. It’s true we were a little bit nervous near the box. But I’ve no complaints as we scored a fantastic goal in the last minute.”

With Senegal coming from behind to draw 1-1 with South Africa, it means that the west Africans are in the driving seat in the group with four points. Algeria are second with three, Ghana are third also with three points and South Africa prop up the pile with one point.

Tough on the South Africans, whose fleet-footed festivals have bewitched opposing defences and won over neutrals. But sadly, they have failed to conjure up the wins.

South Africa coach Shakes Mashaba says his side’s promise will be fulfilled. “It’s unfortunate for us at the moment,” he lamented. “We are building up something for the future and we can feel that something good is happening. Yes, of course it’s frustrating as we are working hard to be in front of the opposition’s goal and we’re supposed to be scoring but we’re fluffing chances. But I think in time there’s a team we will punish.”

Whether that will be Ghana on Tuesday night in Mongomo remains to be seen. Quirkiness is the enduring charm of the tournament.

For Ghana, they have a chance to progress to the last eight for the fifth consecutive tournament.

Qualification is not at all certain and despite his heroics, Gyan was quick to say there is still work to be done. “We were expecting a tough game against Africa’s top team. We had to fight. That was our aim … to fight to not go out of the competition because we would have been out had we lost.”

Gyan was a late inclusion in the team. As the match headed towards a stalemate Grant took a huge risk by keeping the 29-year-old skipper on the field and substituting the fully fit attackers Jordan and André Ayew with Mahatma Otoo and Solomon Asante respectively. But the ploy paid off. The returning hero was quick to pay tribute.

“I’d like to thank the players because they motivated me,” said Gyan. “Before the game I wasn’t feeling that good but they motivated me to get onto the pitch. I think it paid off. I’d like to thank all Ghanaians for their support. We had a good victory against Algeria and we have to do the same against South Africa.”

For Algeria, defeat was tough. They had recovered their defensive poise after the porous freak show that was the game against South Africa on Monday.

Coach Christian Gourcuff took charge of the team despite being told on Thursday of the death of his mother in France. He said losing the game was hard. “We didn’t pose enough of an offensive threat,” he reflected. “But that was because we couldn’t pass the ball quickly enough. The pitch made it difficult to do so. We had a few chances and conceding in the last minute is a bitter pill to swallow, it came from a relatively aimless ball forward and we got caught out badly.”

So are legends born.

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