DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 24: Otto Addo, Head Coach of Ghana, is seen during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group H match between Portugal and Ghana at Stadium 974 on November 24, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Portugal’s first game at the 2022 Fifa World Cup, against Ghana on Thursday, threw up a couple of records.
That which got the attention of the world and grabbed headlines, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo becoming the first man to score at five editions of the Mundial; the other – more understated, also worth mentioning, though not as flattering – belonged to Ghana.
The Black Stars became only the second team, since records began in 1966, to have failed to register a first-half shot or touch of the ball (of any sort) in the opponent’s half, after Saudi Arabia (against France) in 1998.
Let that sink in a bit.
It was a pretty fair reflection of what Ghana initially offered in terms of attacking contribution – little more than zero – ensconced, as they were, behind an invisible and invincible wall constructed under the direction of foreman head coach Otto Addo.
Much as the resulting defensive performance was remarkable – it definitely got Portugal huffing and puffing, but ultimately sterile – it also left Ghana camped in their own half.
And they looked intent – never mind content – to stay the course after recess, until Cristiano Ronaldo thumped in what some have described as a soft penalty – if a penalty at all – won not long after an hour had passed.
Suddenly the game sparked into life – and so did Ghana, even if reluctantly.
The point they seemed to have been holding out for was slipping out of their reach – thanks to Ronaldo’s milestone strike – and the Black Stars had to switch it up several gears if they were to get anything from the contest.
And, to their credit, they did.
Skipper Andre Ayew tucked in from a low Mohammed Kudus cut-back that Portugal’s defence failed woefully in dealing with, just before both scorer and assist provider were inexplicably subbed off by Addo in one fell swoop.
The cuffs, just as it appeared Ghana had tore them off, were slapped back on.
Those baffling, stifling decisions – and Portugal’s simultaneous introduction of Rafael Leao, the mercurial AC Milan winger – briefly, but decisively, disrupted Ghana’s flow. Momentum promptly returned to Fernando Santos’ team, helping them score twice in the next three minutes.
But even with their most creative outlet, most proven finisher, and the head of steam built in the lead-up to the equaliser all gone, Ghana mustered strength to roar back.
It was, incidentally, in the immediate aftermath of a trio of Portugal changes that Ghana pounced – even as the new guys were still securing their places on the pitch and relaying instructions – to make life a bit more difficult for their otherwise comfortable opponents.
Baba Rahman, solid going forward if rather imperfect when defending, surged down the left flank in chase of a ball. Once deep in the Portugal half, the Chelsea loanee hassled and harried Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo to win possession, before scooping a looping cross over the backline unto the waiting head of Osman Bukari, who scored to set up a tense finale – one that, but for an untimely slip, would have seen Inaki Williams tie the game at 3-3.
Ghana would be gutted by the fact that they conceded thrice in the chaotic phase that made the last 40-odd minutes such a compelling watch, but they also scored twice, proving they are quite capable of giving as much as they get if freed to do so.
Against South Korea, in Monday’s second group game, Ghana would have to provide ample evidence of attacking enterprise much earlier than they did versus Portugal, if they are to give themselves the best possible chance of getting off the floor of Group H.
The Black Stars don’t need to be locked up to be formidable; they’re a well-balanced team that, put together properly, can function effectively at both ends of the pitch.
Addo, the guy with the keys, must figure out how to make that happen soon enough.