Story: Kwame Asare Boadu, Kumasi
AS tears flowed freely from skipper John Mensah, apparently for the Black Stars’ failure to win the ultimate prize, an ovation fit for heroes vibrated through the main bowl of the Baba Yara Sports Stadium as the national soccer team staged a splendid second half display to overcome the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire 4-2 to win the bronze medal at the 26th MTN Africa Cup of Nations.
While Mensah, who returned to action after a match suspension, would have wished to lift the coveted trophy, the fans had cause to celebrate the victory once the initial pain of the 0-1 loss to Cameroun in the semi-final had been rubbed by the massive score over the Ivorians.
Watched by some 38,000 spectators, the match brought out some fine football from both sides, and for the Black Stars in particular, who secured their biggest win in the tournament, it was a fitting reward for the fans who rooted solidly behind them even in times of difficulty.
Even while weeping, Mensah gathered some courage to lead the team to do a victory lap and say “thank you” to the fans who had turned out to support them.
French trainer, Claude Le Roy, was satisfied with the way his players played in the second half and exploded to fire in three goals after the Elephants had taken a 2-1 lead at half time.
Ghana raced into an early lead in the 10th minute when Sulley Ali Muntari, who had been fouled outside the box, elected himself for the kick. He produced a characteristic blistering left footer, the ball flying past everybody to hit the back of the net with power.
What a way to open the game, but the Ivorians had other ideas to fight back. They resorted to flighting long balls which blinded the Ghanaian back line and repeatedly the middle of the Black Stars defence flirted with trouble.
Werder Bremen striker, Boubacar Sanogo, and Chelsea’s Didier Drogba remained the biggest threat to the Ghanaians and when the defence appeared to have lost ideas, Richard Kingson’s heroics in the post manifested.
He blocked and fisted threatening balls, one of which saw Drogba embracing the agile goalie after he had denied Emerse Fae and Drogba himself in a two-fisted attack in the 30th minute.
Baffour Gyan, who paired Manuel Junior Agogo in attack for Ghana, was carried off the field following an injury on the quarter hour mark and was replaced by Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.
But it was Cote d’Ivoire whose attacks paid off.
It was in the 24th minute when Sanogo outran John Mensah from a long pass and squeezed the ball past advancing Kingson for the equaliser.
The stadium went dead silent except for the few drumming Ivorians who were heard.
The pair of Drogba and Sanogo continued the Ivorian charge, with massive support from Keita, Fae and N’dri Koffi in the middle.
Persistent pounding from the Elephants paid off again in the 32st minute when the dangerous Sanogo picked his spot well in the area to finish off an Ivorian attack, with Drogba in full attendance.
Danger loomed for the Ghanaians who needed a win baldly to appease their fans and Sanogo nearly punished them again with the third goal, but this time his shot went off the bar.
Obviously aware of the enormity of the task, the Black Stars resumed the game completely transformed and the attack, which had looked lightweight in the first half, turned heavyweight this time, while the defence sealed the holes.
The workaholic Michael Essien was all over, joining the attack with extraordinary speed and dexterity and withdrawing to tackle beautifully, while the MTN Man-of-the-Match, Anthony Annan, remained an excellent tackler and distributor of the ball.
It is not for nothing that Essien has reportedly recommended the former Hearts of Oak midfielder to Chelsea for recruitment. He was matchless in the centre and Le Roy said of him at the post match press conference, “ He is a fantastic player.”
With the Black Stars defence having virtually closed the doors to the Elephants, pressure mounted on the latter’s back line of Boka, Zoro, N’dri and Zokora, which eventually caved in on the 70th minute mark when Owusu-Abeyie scored a brilliant personal goal, outpacing the Ivorian defence to rifle the ball past Tiasse Kone in post.
The Ivorians regrouped to come into the game but lacked control and the magical touch to find a way past Paintsil, Sarpei, Mensah and Addo, who was later replaced by Barusso, following an injury.
Not ready to allow the Ghanaians to score again, coach Gerard Gili made two substitutions, pulling out the anonymous Kalou for Yao Kouassi and Keita for Yaya Toure, but the changes in no way subverted the Stars’ raids.
It was, therefore, not surprising when Agogo fetched the third goal for his side in the 80th minute, completing a brilliant move from his colleagues on the right.
But the Black Stars were not satisfied with the three goals and probed for more. Haminu Dramani produced a great goal, his first in the tournament, from some 25 yards in the 85th minute to silence some fans who had been calling for his substitution.
Asante Kotoko’s Harrison Afful was introduced into the game in the dying minutes and the Black Stars surged forward in a search for more goals, which never came, any way.
Ghana: Kingson, Paintsil, Sarpei, Addo/Barusso, Mensah, Annan, Dramani/Afful, Essien, Agogo, B. Gyan/Owusu-Abeyie, Muntari.
Cote d’Ivoire: Tiasse Kone, Boka, Zoro, Zokora, N’dri, Tiene, Fae, Kalou/Yao, Drogba, Sanogo, Keita/Yaya Toure.