“Macho men don’t play football” a Ghanaian football fan posted defiantly on social media. Well, football isn’t restricted to a particular stature, but you can understand the fan’s anxiety.

At the ongoing AFCON 2017 in Gabon, His favourite team comes up against the physically imposing Malians this Saturday, January 21, and naturally, fans would latch on to anything to bury anxiety.

That anxiety is not in a vacuum. On match day 1, Ghana’s Black Stars laboured to an important 1-0 win over Uganda (a first in 6 games) while Mali played confidently without fear or intimidation as they secured a surprise goalless draw with pre-match favourites, Egypt. Going into this encounter, Ghana would be fully aware of the Malian threat, considering how they have stretched the Black Stars in recent AFCONS. Both teams, in the last 4 encounters, have won 2 apiece, though the Malians have won the more important 3rd place matches at the 2012 & 2013 AFCONS. The Black Stars obviously have their work cut out; how do they overcome this hurdle, win and qualify for the quarterfinals. Here is the “to do list”:

Clip Moussa Marega, Yves Bissouma and Bakary Sako

So I have a confession; I really really like the look of this Malian team. They are way more than just macho-men. Now, if you Ghanaian, think back to 2010 AFCON silver winning Black Stars team. That team was augmented with a significant number of players from the 2009 U20 World Cup winning team. It’s a similar template that Mali’s French coach, Alain Giresse, has built by infusing young blood from the 2015 U20 World Cup bronze winning team. A number of these players notably Adama Troare who won the Golden Ball in that tournament have added flair, pace and industry to this team.
It was no surprise that Mali played with such swagger against Egypt and had they been sharper in front of goal, they could have won. Key to their commendable performance were the output of Vitória de Guimarães’ big burly striker, Moussa Marega, who made Egypt’s defenders pant; Cyrstal Palace’s Bakary Sako was also solid with good runs into the channels from the left, but the man who exerted himself and bossed the midfield was Lille midfielder Yves Bissouma. Bissouma’s ability to possess and quickly transit into attack got Egypt’s Elneny and midfield mates, working overtime. To add to the individual threat, the Malian team have great height on them and would have to be watched especially on set pieces. How then does Ghana coach, Avram Grant, clip these Malians? He has to two more things.

Kill the game early

Fitness is a major concern and Grant as well as Christian Atsu have both admitted in separate interviews. “I keep working and keep praying to do my best. I was a bit tired but as the tournament goes on we will get better and be able to play for longer periods.” Atsu told reporters after his man of the match performance against Uganda. The team, apart from a couple of players, looked spent after 70 minutes; hence Grant cannot afford to compete with the Malians at the physical level. He should rather, instruct the Black Stars to let the ball do the running so as to conserve their minimal stamina; score an early goal and make the Malians chase the game. This is the strategy that would tame the Malians, who clearly match the Black Stars in terms of gifted stars and are even fitter. For this to be effective however, Grant has to get his personnel right.

Rope in Ebenezer Ofori

The last time I saw Ofori in a Ghana shirt, he was playing at left back for the Black Satellites, yes left back. Ofori for me is the natural solution to fill the gap left by Baba Rahman, who has left the tournament after tearing cruciate ligament in his left knee. Ofori, who used to play for New Edubiase, started out as a left back hence the role, would not be unfamiliar. Ofori plays in midfield these days for his Swedish club, AIK but would slot in more comfortably than the makeshift Frank Acheampong, a natural winger, who would not only be a higher risk, but would be wasted in defense as he offers more going forward. So like we say in Ghana, “over to you Joe Grant”.

Source: GhanaWeb

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