Ghana locked up a spot in Brazil by first cruising to the top of their African qualifying group, then demolishing Bob Bradley's Egypt over 2 legs by an aggregate 7-3 score line. The Black Stars allowed only 6 goals in their 8 qualifying games, while scoring 25 of their own. They were led by veteran striker Asamoah Gyan, whom US fans will remember as the scorer of the extra-time goal that eliminated the Stars and Stripes in 2010.
This year finds Ghana and the US matched up again, in both teams' first game. But coming into this tournament, Ghana are not the same as 2010's, and the differences could mean the 2014 matchup between the two rivals bears little resemblance to their 2010 battle.
If the Ghanaian midfield and forward lines can control the tempo and possession, they're going to be very tough to break down. Against teams like Portugal and Germany, though, the Black Stars probably won't find as much room to operate, and will be forced to sit back and defend. Unfortunately, that's this squad's main weakness.
Much like it is for the US, Ghana's first game is hugely important. If they get anything less than 3 points from that matchup, Ghana will face a very tough road towards qualifying for the second round.
Goalies: Adam Kwarasey (Stromsgodset), Fatau Dauda (Orlando Pirates), Stephen Adams (Aduana Stars)
Defenders: Samuel Inkoom (Platanias), Daniel Opare (Standard Liege), Harrison Afful (Esperance), Jeffrey Schlupp (Leicester City), John Boye (Rennes), Jonathan Mensah (Evian), Jerry Akaminko (Eskisehirspor), Rashid Sumaila (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Midfielders: Michael Essien (AC Milan), Rabiu Mohammed (Kuban Krasnodar), Agyemang Badu (Udinese), Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus), Sulley Muntari (AC Milan), Albert Adomah (Middlesbrough), Wakaso Mubarak (Rubin Kazan), Christian Atsu (Vitesse), David Accam (Helsingborg), Andre Ayew (Marseille), Afriyie Acquah (Parma)
Forwards: Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Schalke), Abdul Majeed Waris (Valenciennes), Jordan Ayew (Sochaux)
FIFA World Ranking
Players to Watch
Asamoah Gyan, Striker
All Gyan does for Ghana is score goals. It doesn't even matter how he's playing for his club. Before 2010, where he led Ghana in scoring, he had scored only 14 goals in 48 appearances for his club team. Now, though, in the run-up to Brazil, Gyan's in the goal scoring form of his life. Yes, he plays for Al-Ain in the UAE, but the scoring numbers can't be ignored: 59 goals in only 47 appearances. Opponents will be hoping that Gyan won't be used to a higher level of competition, and will struggle to adapt to the speed of the international game, but he's a veteran international player who's knows what he's doing.
As if he needed another reason to be motivated for Brazil, Gyan's also hoping to shake off the memories of South Africa. After Luis Suárez's infamous handball in the box in the dying seconds of the quarterfinals, Gyan took the ball, placed it on the penalty spot, and promptly smashed it against the crossbar. Ghana lost in the subsequent penalty kick shootout. So, not only will Gyan be at his best because this is probably his final chance at a World Cup, but he also will be motivated to get Luis Suárez out of his nightmares. Not many stronger motivators.
Abdul Majeed Waris, Winger
A lot is made of Ghana's midfield strength and industry, but in truth they have 3 or 4 midfielders who are relatively interchangeable. What they don't have a surplus of are complementary goal scorers to Gyan. Enter Majeed Waris.
A player whose stock has risen quicker than anyone on the Ghanaian team in the last 6 months, the 5'7" winger scored three goals in qualifying for the Black Stars, and already has 4 goals for his country in only 9 appearances. He was also in great form for his club in France, notching 9 goals in only half a season.
Waris's biggest asset is his game-changing speed; he has the ability to make diagonal runs off the shoulders of defenders that are wider than most players would make, giving him more space to run onto the ball. Against teams with untested defenses, like, oh, the US, Waris's pace could cause center backs fits. Though it still remains to be seen if Waris can handle the pressure of the World Cup, players who rely on pure speed will often be able to at least create chances, even if they're feeling the pressure of the moment.
Appiah, appointed as manager in 2012, is more attacking-minded than his predecessors. His preferred 4-3-3 formation plays to Ghana's strengths, namely strong, mobile midfielders and speedy, slight attackers. Veteran stalwarts like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kwadwo Asamoah will provide pure physicality in the middle of the pitch, with Kevin Prince Boateng more of a creative option, depending on the team's strategy. Up front, Ghana's line is led by Gyan, who is playing in his 3rd World Cup and has scored 4 goals in 8 World Cup matches. Gyan will be flanked by Abdul Majeed Waris, and either of the two Ayew brothers: Jordan or Andre. Appiah's formation emphasizes the central midfield and wing players, positions where Ghana are as good as any African team in the Cup.
In addition to being more offensively-oriented than their 2010 squad, Ghana are also significantly weaker defensively this go-round. Gone are veteran center-backs John Paintsil and John Mensah, and in their place are players like Rashid Sumaila, a 21-year-old with only 4 caps, and John Boye, with only 26 caps. Of all the called-up defenders, right-back Samuel Inkoom is the most experienced, with only 45 appearances. A lack of experience playing on an international stage as big as the World Cup may cause some problems for this heralded Ghana squad.
But even the experienced players Ghana brought to Brazil might not be at their best. Essien—perhaps Ghana's most famous midfielder of all time—made only 12 appearances last season for Chelsea and AC Milan, scoring no goals and registering only 1 assist. His midfield mate Kwadwo Asamoah certainly played more, but not in central midfield. For Juventus, Asamoah lined up seemingly everywhere except in the middle, most often featuring as a right or left wingback. With some of Ghana's best players are either out of form or out of practice at their national team positions, it may present a challenge for the Black Stars to coalesce in such a short period.
Group G Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 16, 6 p.m.: Ghana vs. USA at Estadio das Dunas
June 21, 3 p.m.: Germany vs. Ghana at Estadio Castelao
June 26, noon: Portugal vs. Ghana at Estadio Nacional
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty