Thomas Partey’s increasing prominence in the Ghana fold has been one of the key features of Kwesi Appiah’s second tenure at the helm of the national side.
The Atletico Madrid powerhouse had only started three matches for the Black Stars ahead of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but after starting five of their six matches in Gabon under Avram Grant, it was clear that he’d be a key man under the Israeli’s successor.
Appiah duly built his team around Partey.
The midfielder started nine of the next 12 matches, scoring seven in seven as he began to enjoy a greater influence in the Ghana midfield, showcasing both his defensive qualities and his offensive strengths.
While many of the squad’s high-profile players drifted out (and back in) of the side under Appiah, Partey was a regular, and was even promoted to the role of captain—albeit on a provisional, temporary basis.
His successes at club level with Atleti crescendoed in recent years, even as Ghana’s own fortunes failed as they missed out on the 2018 World Cup.
Partey was present as four crucial points were dropped against both Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda, although he didn’t feature in either of the qualifiers against Egypt as Ghana took just one point from a potential six.
Amidst the troubles, he ended the nation’s four-year wait for an international hat-trick, netting three times in the thumping triumph over the Red Devils.
In a game notable for the ‘abdication’ of the Ayew brothers and Asamoah Gyan, Partey stepped up to the plate, delivering a masterful display to deflect attention away from some familiar problems.
While the 25-year-old’s presence in the Stars midfield has been a key feature of Appiah’s second reign, so has an inability to find a consistent partner for the Atleti star.
Ebenezer Ofori was given nine starts since the Afcon, but has featured just once in the last seven as he appears to have lost the faith of the manager, while Isaac Sackey and Daniel Amartey have also been assessed in the heart of the park.
Even Grant favourites Wakaso Mubarak and Afriyie Acquah have steadily returned to the fold as Appiah has sought a midfield solution.
Kwadwo Asamoah remains an elusive proposition, despite his advancing years, but he’s been strangely held back under Appiah, while a career now remodelled as a left-sider suggests he’d need to re-adapt to a central role.
Despite playing regularly in one of Europe’s major leagues, Alfred Duncan has been handed just two starts since the Afcon as his frustrating international career continues.
He made his debut against Cape Verde in 2012, but then waited three and a half years before returning to the fold—for a 0-0 draw away in Mozambique in March 2016.
He was further examined in an Afcon qualifier against Rwanda in September that year, as well as a friendly defeat by Russia, but then had to wait just under a year before returning to the fold.
There were over three years between Duncan’s first and second caps, a year between his fourth and fifth, and after a brief dalliance with the team, he’s out of the fold again.
The 25-year-old hasn’t played since the friendly victory over Saudi Arabia, and has missed out on Ghana’s last eight matchdays.
Yet can any of his would-be rivals match his consistency in one of Europe’s big five leagues, with Duncan making 26 appearances in Serie A last term as over-achieving Sassuolo finished in a safe mid-table spot.
This year it’s been a similar campaign for the Neroverdi; they appear unlikely to match the magnificent 2015-16 campaign, when they qualified for the Europa League, but should have the stability to again finish well clear of the dropzone.
It’s in these stable surroundings that Duncan is approaching his prime, and he appears to be thriving in the dynamic atmosphere cultivated by young coach Roberto De Zerbi.
Duncan, who is among the top 10 most frequent foulers in the division, enjoyed perhaps his best performance of the season against Fiorentina this weekend, when he opened the scoring in a thrilling home clash with a thunderous effort from range.
Despite twice taking a two-goal lead, Sassuolo conspired to draw 3-3 after conceding two goals at the death, a capitulation which was testament to the inconsistency that’ll likely keep from from another continental finish.
Yet Duncan was imperious, thriving on the right side of the midfield in De Zerbi’s 4-3-3 formation, and contributing the assist for Khouma Babacar’s goal.
He ended the game with three direct goalscoring chances created, and was a key component of Sassuolo’s build-up play.
Defensively, he also excelled; no player on the pitch completed more tackles, and Duncan delivered the kind of all-round midfield display that hinted at what he could offer alongside Partey.
Duncan’s defensive qualities could help give Ghana the kind of stability that they have at times lacked with the mobile Wakaso or the converted No. 10 Acquah in the midfield, while he has the discipline and the positional intelligence to allow Partey to take a more offensive brief.
While the Atleti man might not offer the kind of intricacy required to unlock Africa’s top defences, his showing against the Congo demonstrates what he’s capable of against the continent’s lesser lights.
Duncan, overlooked for so long, can be the man to get the best out of his compatriot. Overlooked for so long, 2019 could be his year.