That 83rd-minute goal by Sofiane Boufal in Ghana’s Group C opener on Monday, at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, certainly broke the hearts of Ghanaians and triggered a sense of déjà vu.
It was, after all, the latest opening-day defeat for the Black Stars who, before that game, had only won three of their last 10 at the biennial tournament – the same number as they had hitherto lost.
Ghana, four-time winners of the competition, will look to shrug off that disappointment and get their challenge back on track, rather than suffer another setback that would further complicate their chances of making it to the next round.
Standing in their way is a Gabon side that — having won their own first group game, 1-0 against Comoros — only requires a second victory to secure a place in the Round of 16.
The Gabonese — making their eighth appearance at the AFCON – are currently joint-top with Morocco (who play Comoros earlier in the day), and would be boosted by the return of high-profile duo Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina.
The pair recovered just in time from COVID-19 infections, and head coach Patrice Neveu* will be elated to have these influential players back in the starting line-up. Their combined star power does make the Panthers look a more formidable unit than they did in their previous game.
Milovan Rajevac, the Ghana trainer, was also sweating over the fitness of his own chief talisman, Andre Ayew, after he picked up a scare in the clash with Morocco and later revealed that he’d played through ill health, but it appears the skipper’s availability is no longer in serious doubt.
“He suffered a knock and was hurt and needed stitches and he is feeling okay now,” Rajevac, in the pre-match press conference, described the forward’s current state.
A more pressing concern for Rajevac is the Black Stars’ struggles in recent group stage games at the AFCON. They’ve only won one of their last five, losing two and drawing as many, and Rajevac would have to come up with a formula capable of improving such a poor record.
Key to doing so would be increased creativity and sharpness upfront, as Ghana haven’t been prolific enough of late. But Rajevac is also keen to see Ghana stamp their authority elsewhere on the pitch — in midfield, for instance, where Arsenal man Thomas Partey didn’t have the best of games in the opener.
“Maybe his performance against Morocco was not at the level we all expect,” Rajevac admits, “but definitely he is a great player and he will prove to everybody in the next matches that he can play fantastically and he can really contribute to the team.”
In any case, at any point in time, Ghana should have enough quality on the pitch to snuff out Gabon’s threat. Still, should things get tougher than expected, Ghanaians would hope that Rajevac makes better use of the other resources at his disposal than he did in the match with Morocco, which many believe was ultimately lost from the bench.
Victory for Ghana is the likeliest outcome at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo this evening, but in a tournament that has already seen underdogs overachieve, rule nothing out.