REUTERS/Toru Hanai TPX
11:25 BST, Wednesday 30th May, Nissan Stadium (Yokohama, Japan)
April 9th was a time when most national teams who have qualified for this summer’s World Cup finals were focusing on refining their playing squad.
Not Japan though. Instead, the JFA took the decision to ditch the manager who had guided them through qualification and replaced him with their technical director, Akira Nishino.
With just three friendly matches to prepare his players for the tournament, this first test will also be the only game he has prior to the deadline for submitting his chosen squad of 23 players.
Facing them are an African team who failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament despite being one of the favourites to attend before qualifying took place.
As the top-seeded team in the CAF’s group E, a massively disappointing series of games saw them eliminated with a game to spare. Having finished below both Egypt and Uganda, they drew four of their six games, only once winning against bottom-placed Congo.
From the fires of this burning humiliation, Ghana now look to rebuild their team. Once again under the guidance of James Kwesi Appiah – Avram Grant having stepped down from his role earlier this year – the Black Stars will be looking to restore some pride ahead of their upcoming African Cup of Nations qualification campaign.
Last Time Out
Japan 1-2 Ukraine (International Friendly)
Following a poor 1-1 draw with Mali, the second friendly game in Liege during the March international break proved to be the final act by Vahid Halilhodžić. His full-strength team was built for solidity but was ultimately littered with defensive errors that gave the superior Ukrainians victory.
Naomichi Ueda glanced a header past his own keeper from Yaroslav Rakitskiy’s shot to give his team an early lead.
Tomoaki Makino did manage to head into the net at the correct end of the field to restore parity just before half time. With little attacking threat having been shown, it was telling that the ball was delivered to him from a free-kick rather than open-play.
Ukraine remained in the ascendancy after the interval and pressure eventually told in the 69th minute. Oleksandr Karavayev found himself unmarked in the box to rifle home a cross from the left wing, sealing the result and the then Japan manager’s fate.
Ghana 1-1 Egypt (World Cup Qualifying)
With Group E already decided before the final round of fixtures, Ghana had a chance to salvage some pride against the team with an unassailable lead at the top of the table. With relatively little at stake, however, the game was unsurprisingly played out in a subdued fashion.
It was the home side who made most of the running though, finishing the match having made 21 shots on the Pharaohs’ goal, a third of which being on target. Despite this, Egypt took the lead through Mahmoud Abdelrazek’s 62nd-minute strike.
It took only two minutes for the home team to hit back, Edwin Gyasi cutting in from the right wing and finding the net, albeit via a deflection, to level the scores.
While the Black Stars continued to push for a winning goal, they were unable to break down Egypt’s disciplined defence. With two points dropped it also meant Ghana were unable to take advantage of Uganda’s draw, keeping them behind their rivals in 3rd position on the final table.
Having played in a 4-2-3-1 throughout the qualification campaign, Nishino could well stick with this formation over his preference to play 4-3-3.
Having restored Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa to the squad, all of them will surely get at least some minutes on the pitch to prove themselves of being able to fit back into the team.
Asamoah Gyan and the Ayew brothers have all again been omitted from the squad chosen to travel to Japan while Harrison Afful and Daniel Opare’s absence could mean a start for Joseph Attamah at right-back.
Ebenezer Ofori could also prove a big miss for the team in central midfield while Daniel Amartey and Christian Atsu are both injured for this and the upcoming game against Iceland.
Key Battle: Shinji Okazaki (Japan) vs Thomas Partey (Ghana)
The Leicester City playmaker brings an invaluable mix of energy, creativity and experience back into the team for Japan.
Likely to be played from the first whistle in the space behind either Yuya Osako of FC Köln or Yoshinori Muto of 1.FSV Mainz 05, Okazaki will be the player expected to make things happen for the home side.
With plenty of other players in the squad able to fill this role, Okazaki will need to prove that as the countries 3rd highest goalscorer, he still has plenty more to offer his country.
Looking to shut him down is another equally influential midfielder.
While he’s typically used as a more defensive midfielder for Atlético Madrid, Thomas Partey is also afforded freedom to advance up the pitch for Ghana.
His hat-trick in their 5-1 qualification win over Congo shows he has an eye for goal which can prove useful if his runs from deep are not picked up by the opposition defence.
Following the defensive approach taken by former manager, Vahid Halilhodžić, the Japanese FA’s appointment of Nishino is intended to restore their side’s attacking identity.
Having previously played a possession-based 4-3-3 system, Halilhodžić transformed the team to play his favoured 4-2-3-1 style over the past three years.
The recent 27-man squad selected for their upcoming friendlies by Nishino contains several attack-minded central midfielders, suggesting he could well be considering a return to employing a three-man midfield.
With a lack of pacey wide players and little time to adjust his squad, this is by no means a given, however, a move away from the ingrained negative mentality is a certainty.
An unwelcome return
Ghanaian football has repeatedly been rocked by claims of corruption in recent years. While the domestic Premier League has been without a main sponsor for the past two years, continuous match-fixing claims have continually dogged the league’s governing body.
The chain effect of this has seen a demise in quality of the local leagues. This has led to almost all of the national team’s squad being comprised of players plying their trade on foreign soils, where once around half of the squad was populated by players from their home league.
With the national team’s decline hard enough to accept, news broke this week of yet more controversy for the Black Stars. The Ghanaian President, Nana Akufo-Addo, ordered the immediate arrest of Kwesi Nyantakyi, the President of Ghana’s FA and a prominent member of FIFA’s council.
With Ghana’s playing team in need of an overhaul following their poor form of late, a sweeping change of the hierarchy now looks unavoidable too.
Prediction: Japan 2-0 Ghana
With selection for Japan’s final 23-man squad still not determined, this match will see competitive and highly motivated performances from several of the Blue Samurai.
It also means we can expect to see plenty of half-time changes in personnel and quite possibly a stilted but determined display from Japan.
With several of Ghana’s main players being frozen out of the team and their form lost along the way, they are, in contrast, a team in turmoil. This hints at a good home win which could well serve as a further setback on Ghana’s rocky road back to former glory.
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