Asamoah Gyan needs Afcon swansong to cement his legacy
Only two things prevent Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan from being considered one of the great African players of his generation.
The first is his decision to withdraw his talents from the world's biggest leagues at the age of 25, launching a seven-year sojourn in the lucrative United Arab Emirates and Chinese competitions, before a move to Turkey in 2017.
While these peak years were trophy-laden -- Gyan won three UAE Pro League titles, the Arab Gulf Super Cup in 2012 and the UAE President's Cup two years later -- they denied the forward the opportunity to test himself consistently against the world's best defences, or to compete for the game's grandest prizes.
The second, and still fixable, gaping hole in the striker's resumè is his inability to get Ghana over the line at the Africa Cup of Nations, in which tournament he's competed six times but failed to bring home the gold.
At 33, the 2019 tournament in Egypt represents perhaps his final opportunity to bolster his legacy with major silverware. Yet, with less than two months to go, there are major doubts about whether he will be part of the Black Stars' campaign at all.
The striker hasn't featured for the national side since September 2017, in the 1-1 home draw against Congo-Brazzaville that all but signalled the end of the West Africans' hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia.
An injury sustained in Kumasi kept Gyan out of the return bout -- a 5-1 rout for the Black Stars -- and he hasn't been seen in Ghana gear since.
He has indeed been summoned by coach Kwesi Appiah, who restored the forward to his squad ahead of October's qualifying double-header against Sierra Leone, in light of Ghana's shock 1-0 defeat to Kenya in September.
After an inexperienced Black Stars side was defeated by the Harambee Stars, Appiah began a process of turning back to some of the nation's older heads, and Gyan returned despite having featured for only 35 minutes of Kayserispor's Turkish Super Lig campaign at that point.
"Gyan is still an important player for Ghana. Is there any striker out there who is better than Gyan?" Appiah told Topical Radio at the time, defending the striker's inclusion.
"Can you mention any Ghanaian striker who everybody will have faith in?
"I always say that whenever you are team building, you cannot drop all the old players you've been working with over the years.
"It's always important to blend the new players with old ones to help in the team's development and chemistry."
Ultimately, the double-header never took place as Sierra Leone's football association was suspended, and Gyan was denied the opportunity to justify Appiah's faith.
Another opportunity missed, and by the time Appiah announced his squad for the recent double-header against Kenya and Mauritania, Gyan was overlooked entirely.
"From the start, I kept saying that the games against Kenya and Mauritania would be used to assess some of the players who I am not 100 percent sure about," Appiah told CNR in March.
"We are going to the Afcon, and so it is important that we know the players we will pick.
"This is the last time I will be calling players and it was important that we brought in some new strikers so we can decide whether they are better than the ones we have."
A week off for Gyan, or another step towards a Ghana future without their talismanic striker?
The 33-year-old has done little to suggest that he still as something to offer. He's still to start a league game for Kayserispor this season, and has scored just once in his 10 substitute appearances.
He hasn't featured since March 17 amidst ongoing injury problems, and is running out of time to justify a place in Appiah's plans.
Jordan Ayew has acknowledged that while Gyan remains "irreplaceable," it's time for the squad's fresher faces to step up.
"Now is the time for us, the young ones, to bring our style and be decisive, to try and help the team win," the Crystal Palace striker told Ghana Web.
"I'm sure that the goals will come, trust me. Someone's time is coming definitely at this Afcon, I don't know who, but a team is always like that," he added.
"A big tournament brings out a new star all the time."
There are no shortage of contenders, with Leeds United's Caleb Ekuban a new face in the squad, and Wimbledon's Kwesi Appiah [no relation to the coach] recalled after a long absence, although it remains to be seen whether either will step up to replace the veteran.
"Ghana can win the Afcon without me. Ivory Coast won it without their talisman Didier Drogba [in 2015] so it is possible," Gyan conceded to Asempa FM.
But added: "I will be working harder at club level and would do my best to ensure that I stay fit. That's the most important thing.
"When a player is fit he is able to do a lot of things, so I am looking forward to staying on my feet before and during the Afcon."
Regardless of whether he makes the cut for the trip to Egypt, Gyan can look back on an otherwise magnificent international career.
He's the all-time leading scorer for the national team, having netted 51 times, and he's the top African goalscorer in the history of the World Cup, having netted six times over three tournaments.
In his six Afcon campaigns, he's helped Ghana reach the semi-finals on every occasion, with the West Africans defeated finalists in 2010 and 2015.
Only two other players -- Samuel Eto'o and Kalusha Bwalya -- have scored in six separate tournaments, and neither of them had to contend with injury and malaria, as Gyan did in 2015 and 2017.
Of the 25 players to have featured in six or more Afcons, only eight never won the title, and there are few African greats who don't have a Nations Cup winner's medal in their cabinet.
Unlike Gyan, the likes of Seydou Keita, Sammy Kuffour, Michael Essien and Nwankwo Kanu 'compensated' for their repeated Afcon failures with a swathe of honours at club level, while even Noureddine Naybet and Didier Zokora have one major club honour to their name.
Players such as George Weah [Liberia], Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang [Gabon], or Bruce Grobbelaar [Zimbabwe] could point to the paucity of quality in their respective national teams to explain why they didn't match their club trophy hauls in the international arena, but Gyan does not have this excuse as Ghana is a continental powerhouse.
What is clear is that Gyan's otherwise fine career is destined to end with a brooding sense of 'incomplete' if he is denied participation in, and a win at, the 2019 Afcon.