MOROCCO-GHANA PREVIEW: Afcon 2021 Readies Its First Classic
It is with uncertainty — and, surely, a healthy dose of caution — that Ghana will approach their first game at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, and with good reason.
Only three of the Black Stars‘ last 10 AFCON openers — going back to the 2000 edition, which Ghana co-hosted with Nigeria — have been won, with as many lost.
Even the victories haven’t been convincing, and that poor record would be on the minds of Milovan Rajevac’s team as they prepare to face Morocco on Monday.
The last time the Serbian led Ghana out at the start of an AFCON campaign — back in 2010, during his first stint — it resulted in a potentially demoralising 3-1 loss to Ivory Coast.
But Ghana impressively recovered to go all the way to the final of that tournament. And while Rajevac would be hoping for a similar — even better — run on this occasion, he’d rather have his team fly, not tumble, off the blocks.
That would be some challenge, against a well-drilled Moroccan side that has thus far thrived under the long-term direction of Vahid Halilhodzic.
Halilhodzic was, in fact, the very tactician — then at the helm of the Ivorian national team — who handed Rajevac and his Ghana side that rude awakening in dangerous Cabinda a dozen years ago.
But there’s even more that binds these two.
Both men were born in the former Yugoslavia, within 15 months of each other, and their Eastern European background is reflected in the high level of structure and order they try to inject into how their respective sides operate.
One could expect, then, that their Group C meeting would be characterised by wariness — a weapon that most teams are often armed with in opening games, anyway — and a measure of discipline that might even be interpreted as hesitance to take risks.
It’s a reluctance either coach can afford, reasonably safe in the knowledge that their jobs would get a little easier — in terms of quality of opposition — in the group stage after navigating this high-profile clash (and I say this without any disregard for Comoros or Gabon).
If there is any flair to be enjoyed, however, expect it to be served by the Atlas Lions, particularly down that flank where Achraf Hakimi loves to maraud and plunder and loot and destroy.
The Paris Saint-Germain right-back, especially if he watched excerpts of Ghana’s only pre-tournament friendly (against Algeria, another North African side), would anticipate much joy during the evening.
Just who would make the most of all that service is what Halilhodzic, courtesy of a bout of COVID-19 infections and injuries that have combined to severely limit his striking options, is left to figure out.
Rajevac — who has been at post for about two years less than Halilhodzic has — would have a similar headache in trying to furnish Ghana’s own attack with some bite.
The Black Stars’ lack of a recognised, reliable No.9, coupled with the injury-enforced absence — for now, at least — of usual playmaker Mohammed Kudus, requires a sharing of the goal-scoring burden.
Skipper Andre Ayew — as dependable a source of goals as Ghana has at the moment, especially in his capacity as the nation’s all-time top-scorer at the finals — may have to work his 32-year-old legs harder than he ordinarily would, as the veteran begins what could be his last AFCON.
His brother, Jordan, would be more productive upfront in a role that doesn’t demand goals of him. However, should the younger Ayew show up in the sort of mood he displayed at the previous edition — uncharacteristically inspired in front of goal — Ghana would pose a much bigger threat.
Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey — especially when granted the license to push forward — has a couple of goals in him, too, while Rajevac could also make the most of the relatively unknown quantities he has brought along for this assignment — the likes of Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Daniel-Kofi Kyereh, and Joseph Paintsil — in creative spaces.
Ghana won’t be quite the same side Morocco beat narrowly in a friendly match back in June 2021 (well prior to Rajevac’s return, in fact), but the margin of victory this time could be just as slim — if, that is, a victor does emerge from this classic match-up at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, Yaounde.