Teams from Group D finally get there tournament underway today with one of the favourites Ghana taking debutants Botswana and a derby between Mali and Guinea.
Ghana coach believes this opening fixture is as important as the final, saying: “We know our quality and for the first game we want to send a message to the other teams we are the team to beat”. If The Black Stars were in any doubt about expectations, these were dispelled by Ghanaian Vice-President John Dramani Mahama who stated: “We expect nothing less than the cup”. Ghana will have no room for complacency in facing Botswana as Mahama reminded the squad that the so called minnows had knocked some of the giants of African football out of the qualifiers to get to the finals.
Ghana have Isaac Vorsah suspended but otherwise will field a strong team, captained by John Mensah, who is looking for victory to calm tournament nerves. Whilst Ghana’s strongest area is the midfield, eyes maybe on Asamoah Gyan, returning to fitness after a hamstring injury. Botswana meanwhile go into the match confident of a morale boosting result, despite having their most experienced player, Dipsy Selolwane suspended. However, their main striker Jerome Ramatlhakawana has returned to full fitness after being without a club due to a contractual dispute. This is partly due to the detailed preparation of coach Stanley Tshosane, who believes the pressure is on his opponents: – “It will not have been easy for them to have prepared to face us, we being something of an unknown quantity. We were underdogs when we started qualifying and we are underdogs now. Our advantage is that we know our strengths and limitations and will work with them from the start”. Ghana may be favourites but will face a disciplined unit in Botswana.
Mali’s preparation may not have been worse. Already without experienced key players, Mohamed Fofana and Khalilou withdrew after being named in the 23 man squad and with other injury concerns, the Eagles coach, Alain Giresse said, “We will do whatever it takes to get a result”. Mali will look to Barcelona midfielder, Seydou Keita – himself struggling to overcome injury – to guide a very young squad. Keita himself stated: “It’s a big personal responsibility because I’m one of the most experienced players in the team now and must therefore lead by example. But at the same time, Seydou alone cannot beat Guinea. We must respect the other team and play as a team to win.”
Guinea will want revenge on their last meeting, a 2-0 loss in the 2004 tournaments quarter finals. They may be well placed to so, having a good blend of youth and experience with Bobo Balde, Kamille Zayate and Pascal Feindouno. Coach Michel Dussuyer has his team focused, “It was great to finish ahead of Nigeria. Guineans were proud of the team, but all that is now in the past. We therefore have to continue to work hard, give our 100% always, because we are not in an easy group. Our first objective is to get past the first round. Ghana and Mali will be our major rivals, but we will also not take for granted Botswana, who were the surprise team in the qualifiers.”