MARK O'HAIRE'S (@MarkOHaire) backed winners in five of the first six games at the 2017 African Cup of Nations. Next on his hit-list is Group D's opener between Ghana and Uganda.
Ghana v Uganda | Tuesday 16:00 | Eurosport
If Ghana and Uganda were sick of the sight of each other after facing-off in three competitive internationals in just over two years, the two nations have ended up staying alongside each other in the same Port-Gentil hotel ahead of their Group D opener on Tuesday.
Ghana failed to record a victory in those three previous encounters (W0-D2-L1) with the most recent a 0-0 stalemate in Accra only three months ago during 2018 World Cup qualification. The Black Stars won the shot count 15-6 that day but their failure to record maximum points has put Avram Grant under pressure.
The head coach guided Ghana to the final in 2015 despite only arriving a month before the tournament kicked-off. His troops were beaten on penalties and having reached the final-four in each of their last five African Cup of Nations competitions, the Black Stars are again expected to go close.
But there’s little in the form book to suggest the Group D jollies will bag an elusive fifth AFCON title – their first since 1982. The pre-match favourites are ranked ninth in Africa and spent 12 days in a training camp in the UAE preparing for the competition.
Little in the Ghanaian form book
The Black Stars have only been beaten twice in competitive matches under Grant but the last of which – a 2-0 reverse to pool rivals Egypt during 2018 World Cup qualification – has put Ghana’s qualification in major doubt.
Take the dodgy displays in head-to-heads with Uganda out of the equation and Ghana even failed to impress in a very soft AFCON qualification group alongside Rwanda, Mauritius and Mozambique – they still managed to draw twice and appeared far from assured throughout their six fixtures.
In 2016, the Black Stars’ only victories came against Mauritius and Mozambique and they arrive in Gabon winless in five, scoring once – all against beatable opposition. It’s a situation that’s gotten the locals nervous with a squad that’s looking a little stale in key areas.
Asamoah Gyan leads the line alongside Jordan Ayew in Grant’s preferred 4-4-2 formation. Neither forward have enjoyed regular game-time this season and have struggled with form and fitness. The same could be said of Andre Ayew and 2015 Player of the Tournament Christian Atsu on the midfield flanks.
Cranes beginning to fly high
Uganda are appearing in their first AFCON since they finished second in 1978 and the East African nation are determined to make the most of their opportunity. Over 3,000 travelling supporters are said to be in port city of Port-Gentil, home of Gabon’s oil industry, to cheer on their heroes.
The Cranes had to settle for second spot in their qualification section behind Burkina Faso, but pipped Botswana and Comoros to second place and booked their ticket for the finals as one of the two best runners-up. Head coach Milutin Sredojevic was heralded thereafter.
The Serbian has seen his side rise to 73rd in the FIFA rankings – 18th in Africa – and has even put Uganda into serious contention for 2018 World Cup qualification by holding Ghana away and picking up a victory when welcoming Congo in November.
A 3-1 reverse to tournament favourites, Ivory Coast, in their final warm-up may have dampened fans expectations but Sredojevic’s squad are supremely organised. There’s a healthy blend of experienced hands and rising stars that should ensure they’re no pushovers.
Goalkeeper Denis Onyango is the undoubted star but attacking midfielder Farouq Miya often provides inspiration in forward areas. Only 21, Miya is already approaching 40 caps and tipped as the first Ugandan to make the jump to one of Europe’s biggest leagues, along with Luwagga Kizito, who is at Rio Ave.
However, the Cranes will be without suspended pair Murushid Juuko and Khalid Aucho. The duo played key roles in the Cranes campaign and the midfielder and centre-back could well be missed in Sredojevic’s defence-first system.
Goals in short supply
Uganda’s approach is pretty simple – stay compact, organised and opportunistic. It’s not often pretty – the Cranes six AFCON qualifiers featured just eight goals and they failed to score in either clash against table toppers Burkina Faso.
The underdogs have recorded eight clean sheets in their past 10 competitive outings and I’m going to count on that strength by backing Under 2 Goals on the Asian Goals line at 24/25 with 188BET. If two goals exactly are scored, we’ll get our cash back.
The 0-0 correct score is available at 13/2 (BetVictor) – implying a 13% chance of success – and has proven profitable in five (25%) of the pairs past 20 combined meaningful matches, so there’s value in following the goalless game.
And a timely reminder that now 43/59 (73%) of first round AFCON group games have ended 0-0, 1-1 or 1-0 this century – 9/59 (15%) concluding without a goal.