Preview: Stars set to crush curse of the fifth game

The fifth game in search of a fifth Nations Cup trophy has proved a huge problem in recent years for Ghana. Later today [Thursday] in Malabo, the Black Stars will attempt to rectify that and set up a final that many have consistently predicted but never happened; Ghana versus Equatorial Guinea.

A fifth Nations Cup trophy has been Ghana’s eternal obsession. Every tournament since the 1982 squad won a record breaking fourth title has been billed as the time for Ghana’s fifth. Every tournament has been a colossal failure as a result.

There was the 1984 edition when the Black Stars did not even get out of the group stage, the period between 1986-1990 when Ghana could not even qualify for the competition, 1992 when Ghana qualified, reached the final and lost to Ivory Coast in one of the most gripping penalty shootout in international football. The tournament in 1994 ended in a quarter final defeat to the Ivoirians too before 1996 was cut short at the semi-final stage by hosts South Africa. That was followed by a period of two quarter final exits in 2000 and 2002, one no show in 2004, a group stage exit in 2006 and since then semi final regulars.

But the semi final has proved a massive barrier to break in the history of Ghana football. In five semi final appearances since the 1992 final, Ghana has won only two. And both those games have been against Nigeria. The defeats meanwhile have been to South Africa in 1996 when Ghana were considered favourites, Cameroon at home in 2008 when the odds were heavily on a Ghana home win and to Zambia and Burkina Faso in the last two Nations Cups. That means in the last six Nations Cup semi final appearances, Ghana has won only two and both of them against Nigeria.

The teams the Black Stars have lost to too suggest a weakness in attitude and approach. No one gave Zambia and Burkina Faso a chance against Ghana in the last two semi finals and it seems the players didn’t give them a chance too. It proved disastrous.

That is why the game against Equatorial Guinea is so tricky. Like South Africa in 2006, the semi finals represent significant achievement already. No one gave them a chance of getting this far so they might as well enjoy the moment. Like Zambia and Burkina Faso too, being here means they are heroes already. Everything else is a bonus.

And while some have chosen to focus on their ridiculously soft penalty against Tunisia, that ignores the tenacious abilities that has brought them this far.

The penalty was soft but the execution was excellent. And Javier Balboa bent it in like Beckham from the right free kick call to win it for them in extra time. In their previous games, they had shown good spirit too, drawing with Congo and Burkina Faso before beating Gabon with no hint of controversy.

Their hassling and simple approach to the game plus of course the support of a packed stadium will make them incredibly difficult prospects. And then of course there is the referee.

That penalty call against Tunisia was beyond soft. But having benefitted themselves from some very generous calls at the last Nations Cup in South Africa, Ghana can’t spent all the time dreading the refereeing. If Karma will strike, it will strike.

But Burkina Faso thought us a football lesson that day in Port Elizabeth that Tunisia didn’t heed in Bata. It was that never let the bad calls get to you. Burkina didn’t, the referee was indefinitely suspended afterwards and they went on to compete in the final which they eventually lost to Nigeria.

It seems clear from what Avram Grant and his likely captain for today Dede Ayew have been saying that the referee is not occupying their thought. Captain and coach say like a boxing bout, the best approach is to believe the referee will be fair and simply rely on what you have control over; your ability to win games fair and square. It is a page straight out of the Azumah Nelson handbook on facing the enemy in his own territory; always go with your own referee.

And there could be plenty of them. A few of the players who will head out today for the Black Stars already have significant Nations Cup semi finals experience. Dede Ayew has played in two already as has John Boye, Jonathan Mensah, Agyemang Badu, Harrison Afful and a few. Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu and Mubarak Wakaso have all tasted defeat at that level too.

Collectively they have huge experience but also a collective responsibility to prove to the watching nation that this breakdown against unfancied teams was an accident. They almost have to prove all over again that the 2015 Nations Cup is not business as usual where they reach the last four and break down but the start of something special.

Doing that without Asamoah Gyan will be tough though. The last time Ghana reached the final it was thanks to his superb header against Nigeria. Then in 2012, his missed penalty against Zambia was a big reason Ghana didn’t make it to the final. But you would rather want him in games that out of it which leaves Avram Grant with a lot of thinking to do.

The onus of replacing him might fall to Jordan Ayew. This could be a beautiful script all round.

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