EXCLUSIVE By Ed Dove Follow on Twitter
Ghanaians were delighted with the qualifying draw for the 2017 Cup of Nations.
Considering some of the ominous match-ups the Black Stars could have faced—the likes of South Africa, Morocco, Egypt all lurked in the draw—a pool containing Mauritius, Mozambique and Rwanda was received with delight and relief.
After a 7-1 demolition of Mauritius in the opening fixture, optimism has spiralled, as Avram Grant’s side quickly overcame any potential Afcon hangover with a near-perfect start to the campaign.
However, on Saturday they meet Rwanda—ranked 34th in Africa ahead of the draw—and may well be in for a rude awakening.
Ghana certainly shouldn’t expect to have things all their own way against an Amavubi side on the up and a coach, in Johnny McKinstry, who knows how it feels to unsettle the continent’s biggest teams and has the belief that Rwanda can secure a spot at the African high table.
McKinstry has come close to a giant killing before, when his Sierra Leone side came within half an hour of defeating Herve Renard’s Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan a year ago, only for a second-half double from Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho to re-establish the recognised hierarchy.
Less than five months later, of course, the Elephants had conquered the contient.
McKinstry | Earned plaudits for his work with Sierra Leone
Having come so close to defeating one of Africa’s genuine heavyweights, McKinstry is hoping to go one step further against the Black Stars in Kigali, even if he admits that he was desperate to avoid the Afcon silver medallists in the 2017 draw.
“Leading up to the draw, actually I’d said to a number of people, ‘out of the top seeds, anyone but Ghana…!’”
After seeing the Ivorians’ frailties up close last year, it seems the reigning African champions held no fear for McKinstry, whereas Ghana are acknowledged to be a far more formidable foe.
“I didn’t want Ghana. I know they’re ranked third in Africa with Fifa, but I personally believe that they’re the best team,” he continued.
“You look at the age of the team that lost the final against the Ivory Coast and they had an average age of around 24, 25. They are a team that is yet to peak, and are already finishing second at the Afcon and doing well at World Cups.
“Ghana are the team of the next four to five years, while Ivory Coast are the team of the last three to four years. I wanted to avoid them, but that was tempting fate, as lo and behold, they came out.”
McKinstry has underlined his desire for the Rwandan squad to command the spotlight against the Black Stars and to secure the kind of result that would send shockwaves across the continent.
“It’s as much an opportunity as it is a challenge,” McKinstry continued.
“We’ve got to find answers to the many problems they will pose us, but I’ve said to my players: ‘You should grasp this chance, because if you can go out there as a team and as individuals put on a performance which gets a result against Ghana, you could give a jumpstart to your professional careers.’
“A lot of these players are still playing here in Rwanda, and the ones who are in Europe are at smaller teams, so most of them have several steps to go in their professional careers. Tomorrow, all the eyes of Africa, and even more watching on TV, will be on them.”
Despite the gulf in stature between the two sides, the young coach is confident that his side can rise to the test…even if the challenges are set to come thick and fast.
“Ghana have so many top, top players; in Dede Ayew I think you’ve got the most in-form player in the world at the moment. He’s started in the Premier League in red-hot form—the goals, the assists—you’d struggle to find a player across the top leagues who’s started the season in such good form.
“We’ve got to deal with Dede, but we can’t put all our eggs in one basket, just cover him and be ok. If we just focus on just one player, Ghana have several other players who can hurt us. If you focus so much on trying to stop Dede, his brother Jordan will pop up somewhere, or Asamoah Gyan will.
Ghana | It's impossible to just focus on one key man
“Even going further back into the team, into the midfield, and even the defence, you’ve got Baba Rahman, who Chelsea have just bought for £20 million. If I’m focusing on the left winger too much, maybe the left-back comes flying round and puts in a top-quality cross.
“For us it’s about stopping them as a team playing the way they want to, and forcing them to do things they don’t want to do. We’ve watched all of Ghana’s games since Avram Grant came in and we feel there are certain things they like to do in games and certain things they want to do. It’s our job to disrupt that and to try to cause them a little disharmony in their playing style and, when we have the ball, to play with quality and make sure we cause them problems as well.”
Despite the considerable arsenal that Grant has at his disposal for Saturday’s fixture, McKinstry—taking encouragement from Rwanda’s 1-0 victory over Mozambique in Maputo on matchday one—is confident that his side knows how to secure a result against the West African giants.
“That result was based on team cohesion; our team shape, our organisation, and our communication across all of the lines of the team. There was some excellent defending; Mozambique had a lot of the ball but they could only really create a handful of chances, they ran out of ideas and found a locked door that they couldn’t get through.
“The secret of that game was a very clear vision of what we had to do without the ball, and when we had the ball, playing with quality, with speed and aggression going forward.
“I think moving into the Ghana game, it won’t be too dissimilar. Ghana are a much more direct team, Mozambique like to play and control possession, but Ghana like to get ball forward to wingers and to their strikers very quickly and start running at your back four.”
It remains to be seen whether Ghana fans will still be celebrating the ‘favourable’ qualifying draw come Saturday evening. If McKinstry has anything to do with it, it will be Rwanda who are sitting at the top of Group H by the end of play.
Speaking to him, you just might believe they'll do it...