Ghana's Konadu eyes WAFU Cup gold... and CHAN redemption
To say that Ghana entered the WAFU Cup of Nations at a low ebb would be an understatement, yet the Black Stars are growing into the tournament and are emerging as dark horses for the West African title ahead of Tuesday's semifinal meeting with the Ivory Coast.
That they haven't arrived in Senegal with the swagger and confidence of defending champions is understandable; the Ghana Premier League has been suspended since June 2018, following the dissolution of the Ghana Football Association.
The allegations of corruption revealed by investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas led to the downfall of FA President and left the nation's football in limbo.
The qualifying campaign for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) -- the biennial continental showpiece for home-based players -- afforded Ghana's local-based players the opportunity to get back into action and return to a measure of match sharpness ahead of the league's anticipated return in November.
However, things didn't go to plan, with the Black Stars falling to a 1-0 defeat by Burkina Faso -- at home -- in the first leg of their double-header last month.
It was therefore with some wariness that they took to the field to face the Stallions in their WAFU Cup quarterfinal on Friday, having endured a particularly miserable record against their West African rivals in recent years, losing three out of four encounters.
Burkina Faso also eliminated Ghana from the CHAN 2018 qualifying campaign, and are threatening to do so again after Yannick Pougnongo's 94th-minute strike secured a critical away victory in Kumasi on September 22.
"When they beat us at home, we were very down," Ghana coach Maxwell Konadu told journalists on Friday. "The team confidence really went down, and we really did a lot of hard work to get us back to this level.
"Losing this important match in front of our own fans was very difficult to take, but we took that pain with a smile, and we know we have another 90 minutes in Ouagadougou to play.
"That is our hope," he added. "We know that anything can happen in that game, that's football."
Ghana's WAFU hopes appeared destined for extinction during the opening minutes of their quarterfinal bout in Thies, when Ilias Tiendrebeogo put Burkina Faso ahead after three minutes following fine work from Mody Cisse.
The balance was soon to change, however, as Cisse was replaced with injury and the Stallions appeared to run out of ideas. Ghana soon took the ascendency, with Augustine Okrah, introduced to the starting lineup, pulling the strings, and Esso looking lively on the left.
It was the latter who instigated the equaliser in the 38th minute, when his cross was met by captain Shafiu Mumuni who sent a powerful header beyond Farid Ouedraogo, and Ghana eventually won on penalties.
"I think we know ourselves very well," Konadu continued. "Even though they took the lead, we know the quality we have and we knew that eventually we could equalise and even go on to win.
"The winner we needed never came, but I have to commend my boys for holding it down until the end of the 90 minutes. They really did well."
The win sets up a final-four showdown with the Ivory Coast, and the Black Stars coach is confident that, with momentum now on their side, Ghana can retain the title they won on home soil two years ago.
"We have experience in WAFU tournaments; we've won it twice, and we're trying again. We're here to win it a third time," he said.
Beyond this, Konadu hopes that the Black Stars' performances in Senegal - and their victory over their old foe - can help them turn their CHAN qualifier around when the duo resume hostilities on October 18.
"We have a very good team, and we also know that the Burkinabe are a good side," the experienced coach concluded. "We know each other really well.
"The CHAN qualifier is a different ball game altogether; they beat us 1-0 in Kumasi and it was a painful defeat that we've taken in good faith, but now we go to Ouagadougou and battle it out there."
There's certainly no love lost between these two after their recent, regular engagements.
There were coarse words exchanged between the technical teams after the conclusion of their WAFU shootout, while the Burkina Faso players, watching on from the stands in Thies, didn't hide their delight when The Gambia won a penalty against the Black Stars in their First Round match.
For now, Ghana have restored some measure of pride - and confidence - as they continue their Cup run, and their immediate focus is now on downing the Ivory Coast and retaining their title in Senegal.
Burkina Faso, meanwhile, will surely be licking their wounds and concentrating their attentions on ensuring they have the last laugh in the CHAN qualifier later this month.
"In terms of the morale, it doesn't affect the group at all, because we are always thinking about tomorrow's match, the game that is coming next," said Stallions coach Saidou 'Krol' Zerbo after his side's elimination.
"What happened doesn't affect us. The technique needs improvement, but our mentality is unaffected."