Sunday, February 03, 2008

Courageous Black Stars Ago-go marching on to last four

Hosts Ghana squeezed through to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals; snatching a dramatic late win against old rivals Nigeria in the capital, Accra. Despite losing their captain to a red card on the hour, with the outcome of the game still very much in the balance, in the dying minutes of normal time Nottingham Forest striker Junior Agogo finished from close range to fire the Black Stars to a deserved 2-1 victory, sparking wild celebrations in the stands.

Udinese forward Asamoah Gyan – a bright spark in Ghana’s exciting World Cup debut in 2006 – had been the target of much derision from the Ghanaian public for his profligate displays in the tournament to date. Having last week been persuaded by his team-mates not to walk out on the squad in response to the criticism, Gyan did his utmost to disprove the doubters midway through the first half; conjuring up a left-footed strike from a difficult angle which crashed into the post and went wide.

Nigeria had been fortunate to survive the group stages but, having ridden their luck to qualify ahead of Mali, looked an improved side in the opening period of this game, despite the absence of Kanu through injury. Berti Vogts’ bold decision to drop Obafemi Martins from a misfiring 4-4-2 formation, instead opting for the width and flair of Peter Odemwingie and Ikechukwu Uche in a three man attack along with Everton’s Yakubu.

Even so, when they were handed the opportunity to go ahead from the penalty spot on 34 minutes, it was against the run of play. Eric Addo clearly pulled Yakubu over in the Ghana box, but the Algerian referee failed to blow his whistle. As the ball broke loose, Uche then collapsed flimsily under a rash Anthony Annan challenge and the referee belatedly awarded the spot kick. It was Yakubu that stepped up to brush the ball convincingly past Richard Kingson, into the bottom corner.

With the party atmosphere in danger of falling flat, on the stroke of half-time ex-Arsenal prospect Quincy Owusu-Abeyie sent in a precision cross for the inspirational Michael Essien to head powerfully into the net via the left-hand post. The Accra Sports Stadium erupted in joy as the ball finally spun across and over the line, and the raucous celebrations carried on throughout the interval.

Shortly after the re-start, Yakubu sent a well-judged lob under the bar of the stranded Kingson from around 30 yards out, but the Birmingham City reserve ‘keeper managed to furiously back-pedal in time to tip the ball over. Odemwingie then also created an opportunity for himself with some intricate footwork, but his finish was straight at a well-positioned Kingson.

With an hour on the clock, Nigeria were beginning to build up a head of steam – with the hosts firmly on the back foot. Odemwingie was again fed through between the Ghana central defensive pairing and, as the Lokomotiv Moscow forward careered in on goal, Ghana captain John Mensah was left with little choice but to clip the Nigerian’s heels to prevent an almost certain goal. The Black Stars’ defensive rock was instantly dismissed, handing his armband to Essien and casting his shirt aside as he walked disconsolately down the tunnel.

Only frantic defending – the Ghana back-line now being imperiously marshalled by the ever-versatile Essien – kept the Super Eagles at bay for the next ten minutes. The tide began to turn however, as Ghana boss Claude Le Roy introduced Hearts winger Laryea Kingston, amid several attacks of cramp on both sides in the oppressive West African humidity, giving the 10-man hosts a greater threat on the break.

Another 30 minutes of extra time would surely have seen Nigeria press home their numerical advantage, so Ghana elected to throw men forward to support lone targetman Agogo when possible. That approach paid off handsomely and definitively in the 82nd minute, when slack defending from Taye Taiwo allowed League One hitman Agogo in at the far post to stab home Sulley Muntari’s threaded low cross unopposed, initiating further joyous pandemonium among the home fans.

Ghana held on heroically through the final minutes to seal a place in Thursday’s semi-finals, where they will meet either Tunisia or Cameroon.

Nigeria boss Vogts will now surely face the axe as a result of his talent-laden side’s limp, disjointed showing at this tournament, and the Super Eagles must regroup in time for the impending 2010 World Cup qualifiers. But, for the hosts, a potential dream final against hot favourites Ivory Coast remains a strong, eagerly-awaited possibility. If the Black Stars were to emerge victorious from such a game, Accra would again be bouncing for days after.