Ghana-Nigeria: A look at yesterday's west African face-off

In a semifinal featuring an intense regional rivalry — as is the case with yesterday’s other semi between Algeria and Egypt, which promised to be full of vitriol and ended up a blowout — both squads were sadly depleted, with the result being a match of far lesser quality than what one would expect of a derby featuring two World Cup contenders.

The Black Stars seemed lost throughout the match without the injured Essien (possible MCL tear) to lend his rock-solid composure at mid.  And with Stephen Appiah missing from mid as well, many a through ball went awry as Ghana either failed to move through central effectively or to connect in the final third and put any consistent pressure on Enyeama.  

Nigeria from the start seemed up to the task, keen to exploit a weakend right flank as Peter Odemwingie, the Screaming Eagle’s most dangerous playmaker on the day, created havoc with striker Obafemi Martins.  But the Nigerians, also featuring several under-20s due to headaches of their own- chiefly a hamstrung Joseph Yobo and suspended Onyekachi Apam proved one- dimensional in too many attacks on net, with Martins often left alone to contend with a blanket of twin defenders before running into the keeper.

So it was fitting that a lone goal from a corner decided things, with Asamoah Gyan- the hero of Ghana’s 1-0 win over Angola in the previous round- leaping amidst an insouciant defense to send a perfectly served ball from Kwadwo Asamoah slamming into the back of the net near to the left post. Nigeria, who were the most dangerous in the first 21 minutes — and throughout — deserved such a sharp reversal  that bore out to the end as their flatfooted response on the deciding play- no one leapt to meet Asamoah and the defender on the post hardly moved to challenge to attempt a block- seemed to have a rippling effect.  Indeed, Gyan nearly compounded the keepers misgivings with embarrassment by placing a lob well out of his reach and just above the bar a few minutes later.

Certainly, the Nigerians generated several glorious chances, only to fail to deliver, such as in the 28th when a shot by Odemwingie was corralled by an onside and unmarked Martins near the penalty spot who kept it within range of a quick diving Richard Kingson, or when Odemwingie headed just wide on brilliant service a few minutes later.  Even with Martins’ flight of fancy in the area that saw his pocket picked, the Nigerians looked ready to draw even, but the 2nd half would see Kingson, with a little help and luck around the net, fit to deny their best.  Out of the gates,  a quick cross in front of the Ghanaian deflected off a defender(Addy) for a near own goal- one of Nigeria’s best chances of the match. In the 48th a glorious scissor from Martins found the chest of a Ghanaian defender.  Kingson ran out to make a point blank save on a Martins’ breakaway that followed a smoothly played throughball, with the keeper preventing Chinedu Ogbuke from executing a bicycle kick on the rebound.

Ghana, who showed much more life in the 2nd, followed back down field in the 60th minute with an attack of their own, and Nigeria returned the favor with Chelsea’s Mikel nearly missing on the opposite end- finally the match started to show some of the anticipated flow, and either side’s supporters seemed ready to erupt.

But the Nigerians seemed doomed at the 70th minute, with Martins floundering once again in double coverage after playing ahead a longball- well done on his part but with Martins being no Dennis Bergkamp, the Screaming Eagles fruitlessly fixated on amateur tactics by repeatedly trying the same move several times more with the equal results- prior to the subbing out of captain Odemwingie. Mikel fleetingly showed signs of being ready to lift his squad, but overall he failed to rise to the occasion, and so went Nigeria’s hopes of returning to the final.

Hopefully Ghana licks its wounds and raises its spirits should they wish to grab their first title since ’82. Nigeria helped compound their injury woes with Agyemang Opoku taken off by stretcher in the 35th following knee to knee contact on a clean play. Nigeria carried on with one-sided fouling- — things would change in the second, however, as the medical staff appeared more a third party contestant in the match –with Ayiila Yusef drawing a card for sending his quarry writhing to the deck and taken off via stretcher.  Kingston looked ready to come out after his leg awkwardly met with a static attacker after punching away a through-ball. Yusuf Mohammed, with the fouls going both ways at this point, was carried off towards the Nigerian sideline with nearly 12 remaining in the match.

The Nigerians, understandably vexed, made their most pointed efforts not on goal, but on the keeper himself, with back to back collisions, the first so laughably intentional it should have drew a card, and the second much more bruising. But a few lumps inflicted upon the Wigan keeper would be their only consolation, with Mikel sending it frustratingly just wide of the right post two minutes into extra time.

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