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Sports

Ghana coach counts on quality, mentality, attitude against Côte d’Ivoire in CAN final

media Ghana's head coach Avram Grant (R) with Asamoah Gyan during a training session on Saturday Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Three factors mark out a footballer for Avram Grant - quality, mentality and attitude. With this trinity of attributes a player obtains the Israeli’s seal of approval. He says he’s got 23 such men in the squad that faces Côte d’Ivoire’s “Elephants” in the 2015 final of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Eleven of Ghana’s “Black Stars” will be selected to walk out onto the pitch at the Estadio de Bata to start the match. The former Chelsea coach says he knows the others on the bench will be primed for action should that call come.

Click here for our coverage of Africa Cup of Nations 2015

The short journey from the changing rooms to the sidelines will be a proud moment for Grant too. His appointment at the end of last year as head coach after Kwesi Appiah’s departure raised eyebrows. Yes, he was experienced but he’d never won anything significant and he’d only ever been to Africa as a tourist.

But he’s travelled well since early December, efficiently going about his business.
“The first step is to choose the players and that wasn’t easy because you need to ask people,” he recalls. “But when you ask people, everyone has got different opinions, so I gave that up, especially since the Ghanaian people like to be coaches. So I had to rely on videos and people I know from my experience in football.”

Forty off years as a coach can be useful. So done and dusted are the likes of Sully Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng. Immense talents on the field, big trouble off it. And they were getting on a bit. Now so many youngsters litter the squad that 25-year-old André Ayew is considered one of the old men.

But it’s clear he’s being groomed to lead the next group. Skipper Asamoah Gyan was unavailable for two games at the tournament. First he missed the opening day loss to Senegal because he was recovering from malaria and then he didn’t feature in the semi-final win over Equatorial Guinea as he was nursing an injury from Naby Yattara’s brutal challenge at the end of the quarter-final with Guinea.

In Gyan’s absence, Ayew wore the captain’s armband and distinguished himself with such vibrant performances that the Côte d’Ivoire coach Hervé Renard has identified him as Ghana’s chief threat during the final.

“I had to take into account that we are changing generation and that we want to build something for the future and also have something for the present,” Grant adds. “If I look back, we have chosen a good squad. They are good players. I cannot say that none of them haven’t given 100 per cent.”

Grant’s criteria will come up for forensic scrutiny in the final.

He knows it’s the most unforgiving of arenas. Seven years ago, a skipper’s slip in Chelsea’s penalty shootout against Manchester United denied him a Uefa Champions League medal. A year later a saved penalty in Portsmouth’s FA Cup final robbed him of one of England’s greatest prizes.

Now he has to manage his Ghana side through 90 minutes with fellow west Africans Côte d’Ivoire, a team boasting the abilities of Yaya Touré, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and the increasingly impressive Serge Aurier.

Grant describes the game as one last challenge, pointing to the welter of difficulties he and his squad have faced since their arrival in Equatorial Guinea.

“We’ve come from a long way,” he said. “Nobody gave us a chance in the tournament but we concentrated on what we were doing in the group stages and got through.”

It was a nerve-wracking voyage out of the pool. After the 2-1 opening day defeat to Senegal, redemption came with Asamoah Gyan’s last-minute winner against Algeria.

Needing victory in the final game, the Black Stars displayed gritty aplomb to come from behind to beat South Africa 2-1. Ghana were seven minutes from elimination before Ayew headed in the winner.

After the game the South Africans all pointed to Ghana’s greater experience. They’ve got what we need, was the gist of the lament. The consolation for the South Africans is that coach Shakes Mashaba is blooding youngsters so they can begin the ascent to the Ghanaian level. Guinea were undone in the quarter-final as much by their own nerves as by Ghana’s greater savoir-faire.

The semi-final against Equatorial Guinea was a simple mismatch. Tunisia should have seen off the hosts in the quarter-final but instead got embroiled in a passion play: exit stage bereft. No such tragedy for Ghana who refused to be intimidated by the hostile environment in Malabo, even before the missiles rained down on the pitch.

Coaches CK Gyamfi and Fred Osam-Duodou took home the trophy three times and once respectively. Grant is a game away from joining those fabled names.

“Côte d’Ivoire is a good team with good players,” he says. “The players will try to do their best. They’ve shown that they know how to play football and that they know how to fight. We’ve progressed every game and Ghana should be proud of them.”

But as Grant contemplates his near future, his past rears up: the elephant in the room before the Elephants on the field.

What if it goes to penalties?

“I’ll call John Terry or Kevin Prince Boateng,” Grant charges back. Quality, mentality, attitude.
 

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