While Ghana's Black Stars are still in disbelief following the news that their skipper and talisman, Michael Essien, will not make the trip to the FIFA World Cup™, Ghana coach, Milovan Rajevac has assumed a more pragmatic approach to preparing his team for a life without the midfield maestro.
“It’s a big blow, not only to the team but to the country,” he told FIFA.com. “He is an instrumental player, he is important to this team. Michael is a winner, he is a big asset and we are all sad about the fact that we will go to South Africa without him. He is one of the most experienced players in my team and I have no doubt that he was going to have a positive contribution to our ambitions,” Rajevac added.
The Serb, however, has now turned his attention to building a strong team that will carry Ghana’s hopes at the World Cup finals. He is quick to remind anyone who questions his team’s capabilities about the tenacious showing of his side at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola where Ghana lost to defending champions, Egypt 1-0 in the final match. It was a gutsy, surprisingly mature performance from a side that had started the competition as underdogs, severely depleted by injuries - including to Essien.
Credit though went to Rajevac, who showed courage in taking the bold step of promoting many of Ghana's Black Satellites that had won the FIFA U-20 World Cup last year to the first team that nearly won the continental showpiece. It was a big gamble that paid dividends for the Serb, even though he endured withering criticism before the AFCON.
Michael is a winner, he is a big asset and we are all sad about the fact that we will go to South Africa without him.
Essien himself suffered his injury at the Cup of Nations, and while most expected him to be well fit for the World Cup, his knee continued to have complications despite massive amounts of effort to fast-track his healing process. But Ghana's worst fears were confirmed last week when a scan showed that the captain would not be able to return to competitive football until later in the summer.
Speaking to FIFA.com two weeks ago before the verdict on Essien was made, Rajevac said his main objective was to get his entire squad ready “in case we see the repeat of last December.” It was a pragmatic approach from a man from whom a lot is expected from in June when the Black Stars launch their World Cup campaign on 13 June against Serbia at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Tshwane/Pretoria.
“We have a tough group, a very tough group. But we have to do well and play our football. The most important thing is for this group of players to be healthy and ready," said Rajevac. "Whatever happens, we cannot drop our heads, we have to continue with our preparations."
Earlier he had told local media: "I hope and believe that the other players would give off their best. We want to achieve with this team and must work hard. We will focus on the task ahead and hope we have a good World Cup. I hope the past experiences with injuries, though unfortunate will help us stay united and fight for each other."
Since taking over the reigns, Rajevac has had to deal with a spate of injuries to his key men ahead of major competition. On the eve of the AFCON, he was forced to omit Stephen Appiah, John Mensah and other regulars due to an injury, while Essien played just one half before breaking down with his knee injury. For the FIFA World Cup, the coach should still be able to call on a top-notch midfield, with Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari joining a host of promising players like Anthony Annan, Kwadwo Asamoah, Andre Ayew or even Germany born Kevin-Prince Boateng.
After opening Group D against Serbia, Ghana will face Australia and Germany in a bid to return to the knockout stages after reaching the second round at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.