PORT-GENTIL, Gabon: Ghana can secure a place in the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations with a group game to spare if they beat Mali in Group D in Port-Gentil on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
Avram Grant’s side, beaten on penalties by the Ivory Coast in the 2015 finals, set themselves up nicely in this year’s tournament by edging out Uganda 1-0 courtesy of an Andre Ayew spot-kick in their opening match on Tuesday.
It was not a vintage performance from the Black Stars but, on a terrible playing surface, Grant is only interested in winning matches for now, regardless of the manner in which they do it.
“In this tournament at the start it’s important to take the points and then you have to come to your best at the right time,” said the Israeli former Chelsea coach.
“In the last tournament we played very good against Senegal in the first game and we lost, even if at the end of the day we got to the final, so we just wanted to take the three points.
“Of course we can play better but this is a tournament and every game will be different.”
Not everything is rosy in the Ghana camp, however. Abdul Rahman Baba’s tournament appears to be over after he suffered anterior cruciate knee ligament damage in the first half against Uganda.
The left-back, who currently plays for Schalke on loan from Chelsea, has now been flown back to Germany to undergo further tests and possibly surgery.
Meanwhile, Harrison Afful is struggling with what could be malaria, and Ghana also went to the wrong training ground on Thursday.
When they eventually turned up at the right venue their players were forced to sit on the team bus for an hour because Uganda were still using the pitch.
West African rivals Mali showed that they are a team to be taken seriously when they drew 0-0 with Egypt in their first outing.
Alain Giresse’s side will now hope to build on that with some fans no doubt hoping to see more of 20-year-old Yves Bissouma after the Lille midfielder starred from the bench against Egypt.
“He brought his freshness to the game but let’s not forget that it is easier for him to come off the bench in games because of his age,” warned Giresse.
Egypt goalkeeping crisis
Egypt disappointed in their first appearance at the Cup of Nations after a seven-year absence, with star man Mohamed Salah being substituted in the second half following a poor display.
The record seven-time champions also lost goalkeeper Ahmed El Shennawy to injury, and with Sherif Ekramy also in the treatment room suddenly coach Hector Cuper has a bit of a crisis.
Essam El Hadary, who came off the bench against Mali to become the oldest player ever at the tournament at the age of 44, will now start against Uganda in Saturday’s second game.
“Our responsibility has not changed too much. We still know that we need to win our next game to stay in the competition,” admitted Cuper.
Uganda played well for much of their opening match against Ghana but coach Milutin Sredojevic was left to lament a mistake by defender Isaac Isinde that gave the Black Stars the decisive penalty.
The Cranes are now looking for their first win at the Cup of Nations after 39 years away from the tournament and they can welcome back defender Murushid Juuko and midfielder Khalid Aucho after both served bans against Ghana.
“It is very unfortunate that one moment, one silly mistake cost us the penalty,” Uganda coach “Micho” told Agence France-Presse.
“It is very unfortunate that despite all the domination we had in the second half, we could not score.
“But we have picked up the pieces, we have learnt the lesson and we are moving forward to the next game.
“We need to be mentally strong, physically fit and tactically competitive in that game and see what football gives us.”