The statistics from the first round of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 suggested that Ghana would have some difficulty in containing Portugal and their voracious strike force, who racked up ten goals in winning their section.
Half of those goals came from the irrepressible Bruma and it was on him that the Black Satellites focused most of their attention when the two sides met in the round of 16 in Kayseri on Wednesday. With two and sometimes three Ghanaian defenders tracking him, the competition’s top scorer found it hard to get into gear.
Not even the two goals the Portuguese scored in their brief second-half revival, both of which were converted by defenders, could take the shine off the performance of the Ghana back-line, who enjoyed a notable success in blunting their opponents’ much-feared attack and laying the groundwork for a creditable 3-2 win.
“We knew that Bruma was very quick and dangerous and that we couldn’t afford to give him any space,” Ghana captain Lawrence Lartey told FIFA.com. “That’s why we tried to keep two players close to him, so that he couldn’t go for goal the way he likes. I think it paid off too.”
If they had any designs on going though, Ghana had no option but to defend well against such dangerous opposition. Tightening up at the back became a priority for the African side after they lost their first two group games to France and Spain, leaving them on the brink of elimination from the tournament.
That they avoided such a fate was down to the sharp finishing of their strikers in the 4-1 defeat of USA. And now, after a shaky start to the competition, the men at the back have made their contribution, fuelling hopes that the class of 2013 can repeat the nation’s title triumph of four years ago.
“We weren’t pleased with our performance,” said one of Lartey’s defensive team-mates, Joseph Attamah, on leaving the Kadir Has Stadium. “We’ve been training very, very hard though. We’ve been speaking to each other a lot more and we got things right on the pitch. I think we used our heads more than our physical strength today and it showed. We closed down space and stopped them from putting dangerous moves together.
As far as the No4 was concerned, the only downside was their failure to deal with the two crosses that led to Portugal’s goals: “We’re not that tall and we ended up giving ourselves a problem or two.”
Nevertheless, Ghana’s win was a special one for the men at the back, who usually play a supporting role to the team’s more feted forwards.
“That’s true. It’s a little bit tough to be a defender in Ghana,” continued Attamah. “Everyone back home always says that we just need strikers but we need to put the accent on defence too. As well as scoring goals, we need to defend well too.”
Let the good times roll
Ghana enjoyed one big party at their hotel in Kayseri last Sunday, when their place in the last 16 was finally confirmed, their relief palpable at avoiding the frustration of an early exit and being given another opportunity to show what they are capable of. On Wednesday, they were celebrating again, both in the dressing room and at the hotel after the game, still overcome by the euphoria of their qualification.
“Yes, we celebrated a lot,” recalled Attamah. “We’d lost our first two games and we just couldn’t get things right.”
“We were almost out,” added Lartey, “but we can only thank God for what happened next. We knew that if we got through, everything would be wide open again and that we’d have a chance of beating Portugal. As a result of all we went through we became very strong mentally.”
With their morale growing all the time, Ghana will now leave Kayseri and head for Istanbul, where their adventure will continue against Chile in the quarter-finals. The Black Satellite rearguard will need to be on top form once more against the South Americans, though they now have a couple of days in which to do their homework.
“To be honest, I don’t know anything about Chile,” said a smiling Attamah. “Our coach should be on the ball, though. In any case, us defenders will need to keep on working together and talking to each other so we can produce another performance like today’s.”
Naming Thiago Silva as his role model, Attamah said of the Brazilian centre-half: “He gets everything right on the pitch and he’s not that tall, a bit like me.” Anxious to play one day in Europe, like his idol, he hopes Ghana can continue their fairytale run in Turkey.
And if it does continue, then there are sure to be more celebrations in the Ghana camp, as he confirmed: “Yes, the party will go on. We are happy and full of enthusiasm. We are confident we can go even further.”