Avram Grant’s Ghana were one of the biggest disappointments of the first round of Africa Cup of Nations group-stage matches.
The Black Stars started well against Senegal, exploiting the space ahead of the Teranga Lions’ defence and enjoying large spells of possession.
However, despite opening the scoring through an Andre Ayew penalty, they were unable to capitalise on their early dominance.
In the second half, Alain Giresse’s side dropped their 3-5-2 formation and switched to playing with four at the back, an approach they used for the latter portion of their qualifying campaign.
The changed proved effective. Senegal suddenly looked far more cohesive and much stronger than their West African counterparts.
Mame Biram Diouf equalised on 58 minutes before a late Moussa Sow goal gave Giresse’s side a vital victory.
For Avram Grant, the loss represented a dreadful start to his Black Stars career—the former Chelsea manager only took the hot seat after the conclusion of the qualifying series—but it wasn't totally unforeseen.
Indeed, in a pre-tournament predictions piece for Kick Off magazine, I forecast that the Black Stars would be the disappointments of the competition.
There were various factors that influenced my conclusion.
The West African heavyweights had been underwhelming during qualification, and while they topped their (fairly straightforward) pool, it wasn't before they had been defeated by minnows Uganda.
Similarly, an injury to Kwadwo Asamoah had ruled the Juventus man out of the 2015 continental showpiece. Not only is Asamoah a versatile and talented operator, but he also brings the experience of being a multi-time winner of a major European league—there aren't too many sides at the 2015 AFCON that can call on that calibre of competitor.
I also questioned whether it would be possible for Grant to get to know and understand his players in time for the tournament. His opening squad was a sprawling selection, but over the last few weeks, he has been forced to adapt as injury and illness concerns have affected Waris Majeed, Jeffrey Schlupp and, latterly, Asamoah Gyan.
It was inevitable that the Group of Death would claim some high-profile victims, and considering all of their concerns and complications, I was fairly convinced that it would be Ghana.
That opening defeat to Senegal—and particularly the nature of their second-half capitulation—only gave me greater conviction.
I anticipated that, against Algeria on Friday, the Black Stars’ hopes of achieving something in Equatorial Guinea would come to an end.
Algeria, after all, were arguably Africa’s finest side in 2014. They delivered a historic showing at the World Cup in Brazil before cruising through qualification for the Cup of Nations.
Similarly, despite a lethargic opening against South Africa in their first AFCON match, they turned on the class in the second half and—in an impressive show of superiority—ran out 3-1 winners.
However, against the Black Stars, the Algeria that turned up were the languid outfit of the first half against Bafana Bafana rather than the effective unit of the final 25 minutes.
The Desert Foxes appeared content to settle for a draw early on. They defended deep, wasted time and seemed to steer clear of the kind of forward forays that so troubled Ghana when they faced Senegal.
The game—one of the least eventful of the competition so far—appeared destined to be lulling toward a draw. That was until the 92nd minute.
In Asamoah Gyan, Ghana possess a player with the kind of aura that is becoming all too rare in the African game. Gyan—record-breaker and malaria survivor—is a continental superstar and remains the kind of player who can allow those around him to believe that anything is possible.
Baby Jet demonstrated his poise and guile in the final minute when, racing forward to reach a cross-field Wakaso Mubarak move, he tore past Carl Medjani—despite giving the former Liverpool man a head start of several yards—and fired home past Rais M’Bolhi.
The goal, coming so late (in the 92nd minute), gave Algeria no opportunity for a response and ensured that the Black Stars secured the three points.
On a broader scale, beyond merely grabbing the victory, it is a goal that has reignited the West Africans’ Cup of Nations campaign, and one that must prompt a re-evaluation of the Black Stars’ chances in Equatorial Guinea.
The goal cannot hide the side’s fragilities—of which there are several—but it has undoubtedly made Ghana favourites for their upcoming group decider against a brittle, nervy South Africa side.
Similarly, one expects that a victory over Algeria—among the pre-tournament favourites—can imbue the Black Stars with confidence and can spur them onto the kind of offensive coherence and defensive assertiveness that have been lacking thus far.
If Grant can ensure that his troops show further evidence of improvement against South Africa, then they will be quietly confident of upsetting one of the four teams in Group D (none of whom have been particularly impressive) in the quarter-final.
If they can win that match, then anything would be possible.
It’s too soon, perhaps, to say that Ghana are genuine AFCON contenders, but if their trajectory of improvement can continue against Bafana Bafana on Tuesday in Mongomo, then the Black Stars will have considerable momentum behind them.