FRANCEVILLE — The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group D will serve up a second West African derby when Ghana face Mali today.
Mali edged past Guinea 1-0 in the first West African derby of the group on Tuesday, while the third such clash will be next week when Ghana battle another sub-regional rival Guinea.
Pre-tournament favourites Black Stars of Ghana will again be expected to beat Mali after they defeated Les Aigles home and away in the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Cup, which also served as eliminator for the 2010 Afcon.
“It’s difficult when you are one of the pre-tournament favourites,” admitted Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic.
“We have already learnt that it is not easy to beat any team here. We therefore have to be ready for Mali.”
However, Ghana, who are on $90 000-a-man if they win this competition, were far from convincing in their opening game against debutants Botswana and only had a lucky first-half goal by skipper John Mensah to thank for a slim win.
Mensah will miss this match on account of his sending off against Botswana, but will be available for selection in the final group game against Guinea if he recovers from a muscle problem he suffered in his team’s first game.
“It’s difficult to replace a player like Mensah, but I have told the team that I would need all of them for this tournament and so I have 20 players who could replace him against Mali,” said Stevanovic.
Young centre-back Jonathan Mensah, who was introduced after Mensah’s dismissal for a professional foul, will most likely play alongside another youngster John Boye in the heart of the Black Stars back four Saturday.
Rennes defender Boye was so outstanding in his Afcon debut he was picked as the best player for the Botswana match. He did not show any nerves and he even saved a goal-bound effort on the goal line.
There have been some concerns as regards the fitness of star striker Asamoah Gyan, who limped out of training Thursday with a suspected ankle complaint.
It will be a heavy body blow for Ghana should Gyan fail to recover for this match as the Black Stars are thin on strikers for this tournament.
Mali also had to defend with their lives a first-half goal by Bakaye Traoré to turn away Guinea in the other Group D match on Tuesday.
Barcelona midfielder Seydou KeÏta has assumed bigger responsibilities in the absence of top Mali stars like Mahamadou Diarra, Momo Sissoko and Frederic Kanoute, who has quit international football.
KeÏta said Mali are driven to win again against the highly-rated Ghanaians.
“Ghana remain the favourites in our group, but the Black Stars are not unbeatable,” maintained Keïta, who was very emotional after a hard-fought win over next door neighbours Guinea.
“The objective is to play to our potentials and get a positive result on Saturday (today).”
He added: “We have not achieved anything yet and in football, things can happen so fast and so our second game against Ghana will be a lot more decisive.”