Twelve years ago, Ghana came within a whisker of being the first African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Luis Suarez’s infamous handball on the line denied the Black Stars a late winner in their last-eight tie, before Uruguay went on to win on penalties. It was a heartbreaking moment for the West African nation, but Ghanaian soccer supporters were nevertheless proud of their team’s efforts in South Africa.
Their most recent tournament appearance did not go anywhere near as well. At the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, held in January and February of this year due to a Covid-induced delay of 12 months, Ghana suffered an ignominious elimination in the group phase. The competition now features 24 teams rather than 16, so only eight are knocked out before the knockout stage. Ghana joined the likes of Zimbabwe, Mauritania and Sudan in boarding an early flight home from Cameroon.
Ghana might not have won the Cup of Nations in 40 years, but they are still among the continent’s heavyweights.
They have lifted the trophy four times overall and reached at least the semi-finals in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017. The Black Stars have also qualified for three of the last four World Cups.
However, the last few years have showcased signs of decline. Ghana only reached the last 16 of the Cup of Nations in 2019, having failed to qualify for the previous year’s World Cup in Russia.
Their poor performance in Cameroon was the nadir and immediately led to calls for a reset which have since been heeded by the Ghana Football Association. Otto Addo has been appointed interim head coach, while Chris Hughton has been brought in as technical advisor and George Boateng has been drafted into the coaching setup.
Ghana will hope those changes pay dividends in the World Cup play-offs.
Nigeria headed into the recent tournament in Cameroon among the favorites to triumph.
They were the standout performers in the group phase, which began with a 1-0 victory over Egypt, the eventual runners-up. The Super Eagles went on to beat Sudan and Guinea-Bissau by two-goal margins, and finished the group stage as the only team with a 100 per cent record.
The perils of knockout soccer revealed themselves in the round of 16, however. No team wants to peak too early at international tournaments, but that is what Nigeria did. They had plenty of the ball against Tunisia and landed 12 shots on their opponent’s target, but a smash-and-grab performance from the Eagles of Carthage sent Nigeria home before the quarter-finals. Augustine Eguavoen, the Super Eagles manager, could hardly believe it.
Nigeria will be desperate to make up for that disappointment by booking a place in Qatar.
Jose Peseiro is now in charge – he was always going to take over from Eguavoen, the interim manager, after the Cup of Nations – but he has had little time to work with his players. The same is true for Addo, however, so Nigeria should not be at a major disadvantage here.
Their squad contains plenty of talent which, crucially, is not concentrated in one area of the pitch. Nigeria remain one of Africa’s strongest sides and they will fancy their chances of qualifying for their seventh World Cup.
Going away from home is not easy in Africa, where home advantage remains a significant force. Nigeria do not have too far to travel, but the fact that Ghana have not lose a World Cup qualifier on their own soil since 2001 will give the Black Stars confidence.
Runs like that have to come to an end some time, though, and there is reason to believe that Nigeria can establish a first-leg lead on Friday.
Their team has a better balance to it than Ghana’s, who are still in the process of trying to move on from their golden generation. There are not enough good quality young players coming through, which stands in stark contrast to the youthful talent within Nigeria’s squad.
The Super Eagles have some impressive midfield options in particular, although Wilfred Ndidi has suffered an untimely injury. That will allow Nigeria to be comfortable in possession here, which will help to quieten down the home crowd.
Both teams suffered early exits from the Cup of Nations, but while Nigeria at least put in some good performances, there were no positives to take from Ghana’s displays. Back Nigeria to compound the misery of their old rivals on Friday.
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|Ghana vs Nigeria Information|
|Teams||Ghana vs Nigeria|
|Location||Cape Coast Sports Stadium, Cape Coast, Ghana|
|Time||Friday 25 March 2022, 03.30 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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