News Matches
World Cup

World Cup 2022: Kudus is no Neymar but Ghana star holds the keys to Round of 16 prospects

2:30 PM IST 25/11/22
Mohammed Kudus Neymar
The Ajax man’s second-half showing against Portugal bodes well for the Black Stars who must lean on the midfielder’s talent in Qatar

Away from all the online outrage that followed Portugal’s 3-2 success over Ghana on Thursday, there must be an analysis of Otto Addo’s approach and Mohammed Kudus’ performance.

The Black Stars’ plan before the start seemed obvious once the line-ups were released and observers’ pre-game postulation appeared correct from the get-go.

Ghana played a 5-3-2 (which effectively morphed into a 5-4-1 at times with Andre Ayew dropping into midfield) and defended deep, limiting space for the Selecao who struggled to fashion quality openings after two Cristiano Ronaldo chances three minutes apart in the 10th and 13th.

On the one hand, it was not lost on anyone that Portugal had only Expected Goals of 0.65 in the first half and their only shot on target after Ronaldo’s 10th-minute attempt was Otavio’s effort from outside the box in the 36th minute, suggesting the much-fancied European nation were struggling to break down the competition’s lowest-ranked side.

On the other, it was jarring that the West Africans had no single attempt in the opening half, causing criticism of Addo’s modus operandi. Ghana had successfully limited Portugal but it came at the expense of their attacking play.

However, perhaps Addo’s approach was not misguided.

The Black Stars trainer had seen his side dominated by Brazil two months earlier in a tune-up encounter with the World Cup favourites, while he saw Thursday’s opponents blow West African neighbours Nigeria to smithereens last week. The encounters respectively ended 3-0 and 4-0.

Be that as it may, that opening half was a hard watch if you hoped to see any patterns of play for Ghana in their attacking transitions.

The idea — albeit seen insufficiently — seemed to be to give the ball to Mohammed Kudus to drive forward aggressively in possession but this not only proved few and far between but was unsuccessful due to Portugal’s counter-pressing and an absence of options for the man in possession.

Addo needed justification for his team’s subdued approach, especially as a switch from a defensive brief to playing on the front foot would have been far from straightforward if his side conceded the opening goal.

Indeed, change came and Kudus was crucial to Ghana’s enhanced menace after the break.

The Ajax man found pockets of space after the break and it was not surprising that three of the Black Stars’ finest moments before the frenzied final 15 minutes came from their special talent

A surging run from deep inside his half in the 55th minute saw him flash a low effort just wide of Diego Costa’s goal and he shot a rocket-propelled shot straight at the Selecao custodian in the 72nd minute. In truth, Costa was lucky the attempt was not in either corner.

Unsurprisingly, Ghana’s best player was involved in Andre Ayew’s goal seconds after the second of the aforementioned shots.

While the 22-year-old was not credited with the assist, recognising where the space was to receive Abdul Baba Rahman’s pass (which may have been intended for Inaki Williams) and putting the ball in a menacing position contributed to Ayew scoring Africa’s first goal at the showpiece. Looking closer, Kudus’ cut-back was likely to make its way to the goalscorer anyway.

Everything promising originated from Kudus, who was Ghana’s brightest spark, so it was stunning to see Addo replace the Ajax man four minutes after the Black Stars levelled. A likely reason for the switch was owing to the yellow card received just before the break and the trainer considered it too risky to keep the 22-year-old on and risk missing out against South Korea next Monday.

However Addo tries to justify that decision, the game was about to be stretched and taking off your best player in those circumstances significantly cut Ghana’s menace and final-third quality.

Kudus had made the news with his Neymar comparison before the West African nation’s opening fixture against Portugal in an interview with The Guardian and, perhaps, needed a performance to back up those remarks.

“He’s not better than me. He’s just a higher-profile player, that’s all,” the 22-year-old asserted. “We could meet again, yeah? Me and Neymar, part two. I’m sure he would enjoy it.”

A mouth-watering Brazil and Ghana rematch in the Round of 16 would bring Kudus face-to-face with the Selecao’s best player, with the Black Stars intent on claiming a huge scalp in Qatar.

If that is to materialise, Addo must make the most of the Ajax man’s talent against South Korea and Uruguay. Kudus may be the West African nation’s best hope.