If there is one similarity between all international tournaments, whether they are held in Europe, Africa, South America or Asia, it is that as the tournament progresses, teams become more tactically minded and the games become like chess matches.
Last night's game between Ghana and Mali was no different. With Mali defending solidly and looking to use their quick forwards to hit on the counter-attack, Ghana found it impossible to settle into a rhythm. Time and time again they tried to create chances by using their trademark passing and movement, but they were unable to break down a highly committed Mali side.
When both teams walked to the dressing room at half time, it looked as if the game was destined to be a draw, and nothing that happened in the first ten minutes of the second-half suggested any different. But what is also true about international tournaments is that, when things aren’t working and you’re getting frustrated, you can count on your star player, and Asamoah Gyan proved that last night.
Gyan had an ok first-half. Perhaps still feeling the effects of injury, he tried plenty of tricks and moved well in the opening 45 minutes, but his midfield didn’t support him quickly enough and Mali’s defenders took advantage. Then Ghana were awarded a free-kick after 63 minutes, and the world was reminded that, despite playing in a league that doesn’t get a lot of TV coverage, Gyan has lost none of his ability.
Placing the ball 25 yards out, the man they call ‘Baby-Jet’ took one look towards the opposition goal, breathed deeply, approached the ball calmly and curled a beautiful strike into the top corner. 1-0 to the Black Stars, the Mali players dropped their heads and Ghana began to play.
Within 15 minutes of Gyan’s strike the score was 2-0. Andre Ayew, in the middle of a fine season for Olympique Marseille in the French top-flight, began to dominate midfield and create openings. Then a ball was played down the right, Gyan accelerated onto it and hit a superb back-heel into space for Ayew to run onto. One great dribble and finish later and the Black Stars could begin to think about the quarter-finals.
Gyan looked fitter as the game progressed and, now that qualification is nearly secured, he can concentrate on achieving maximum fitness before the knockout stages. The Black Stars were one of the pre-tournament favourites, and with a fully fit Gyan and a very strong squad behind him, there is no reason they can't live up to it.