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Jun 25, 2014

Portugal vs. Ghana: 50-50 Challenge

PortugalPortugal
GhanaGhana
2
1
FT
Match 46
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Ghana train at Estadio Rei Pele in preparation for their game against Portugal on Thursday. Coach James Appiah is keeping his squad focused on the job in hand, and blocking out the off field distractions.

What's at stake?

Simon Curtis: As far as progress in the 2014 World Cup is concerned, very little. But in the big picture, a lot. Those of the Portuguese camp who have appeared before the media since the United States game have cut pretty demoralised figures. This is a fixture that has little historical meaning, but it may well have huge repercussions for the immediate future of Portuguese international football and the people representing it in Brazil. If Ghana win, expect the unrest that is already beginning to grumble through the bowels of the Portuguese sports media to gather both shape and momentum. Head coach Paulo Bento is on pretty thin ice no matter what happens, and an aging squad needs wholesale changes before the Euro 2016 qualifiers begin with a home game versus Albania in September. Therefore, careers are at stake.

Fiifi Anaman:  Everything. This game's importance cannot be overemphasized. Both Ghana and Portugal are still in with a chance of qualifying, despite the fact that these chances are incredibly slim. But, in order to pull a miraculous escape from elimination, both teams know that winning is an absolute must. Both teams could decide to give up based on the fact that the ball is in the court of the United States and Germany, who can afford a draw that will mutually benefit them. But they cannot afford to think about another battle. They can only focus on overcoming theirs and doing their part.

X factor

SC: At last William Carvalho's time must have come. Portugal, decimated by injuries and worn down by poor form, will surely have to stir things up for this game. The big Sporting youngster played a full and successful part in the second half versus the U.S., misplacing only one pass while on the field, a sobering contrast to his teammates' general profligacy, it has to be said. Carvalho can hold, fend off and set up in equal measures, all qualities lacking in Portugal's opening two games, where passes often went askew and possession frequently ended up being handed back cheaply to the opponent. Against the swift interchanging of passes that Ghana perpetrate, a strong running midfield will be essential, held together by the towering Carvalho.

FA: Christian Atsu. The Chelsea winger -- who was named player of the season on loan at Dutch club Vitesse -- has been impressive in Ghana's first two games with his pace and trickery down the wings offering a lot of credible threat. Atsu will be key for Ghana because he spent the formative years of his football career in Portugal, playing at giants FC Porto and at one point on loan at Rio Ave. His knowledge of the Portuguese game coupled with his undoubted talent should give Ghana an edge.

Fear factor

SC: This will come in the shape of the dynamic André Ayew, who is enjoying a fabulously energetic World Cup. Just watching the physical input that the likes of Ayew and young Christian Atsu put into their work makes you want to sit down for a cup of water. Already the scorer of two goals, coming in from the flanks with searing speed, he is a danger both in his own right and in his ability to play the more central figure of Asamoah Gyan in through the middle. With João Pereira exhibiting less than top form on the right side of Portugal's depleted defence, Ayew may well reap rich rewards if not watched extremely closely.

FA: It is hard to point out a single player from this Portuguese team as they have underwhelmed collectively so far in the tournament. But, it is hard to look past Cristiano Ronaldo, despite all his injury and fitness issues. The Ballon d'Or holder has had a tournament to forget, playing through the pain in an attempt to live up to massive expectations. But his delightful cross for that last-minute Silvestre Varela equalizer against the U.S. is very telling. What does it say? He can have one moment of brilliance that can have a devastating effect. He's not in the best of shape, but a player of his calibre is always capable of squeezing some magic through the obscurity.

Key battle

SC: As the only fit striker, Eder is set to get the nod up front for Portugal, and his battle with the Ghana central defensive duo may well turn out to be key. Portugal's two goals have come from wingers Nani and Silvestre Varela, and the central strikers have yet to notch a single goal. Ghana hardly suffer from a lack of height at the back (John Boye is 1m85; Jonathan Mensah 1m88), but of the four goals conceded so far, three can be said to have come about as a result of an aerial approach (Miroslav Klose's from a corner and Mario Goetze's from a high cross into the box for Germany and John Brooks from a corner for the U.S.). There are, thus, clear signs that they are ill at ease dealing with high balls into the box, and the lanky Portuguese striker might just be the right man in the right place this time round.

FA: Pepe vs. Asamoah Gyan. Pepe will return for Portugal after his red card against Germany in the opener, and he is expected to go all-out with his trademark bullishness against Ghana's most potent source of goals -- captain Asamoah Gyan. Gyan was limited by extremely close marking from German center back Mats Hummels and took a while to warm into Ghana's second game that ended 2-2 against Die Mannschaft in Fortaleza. Pepe will fancy his chances of keeping Gyan quiet, but Gyan is very smart and hard to deal with these days.

Prediction

SC: Portugal have disappointed greatly so far, and the mood in the camp does not really bode well for this clash, especially as Ghana have more realistic chances of progressing and will thus fight for every ball. Ghana 2, Portugal 1.

FAGhana 2, Portugal 0. The Ghanaian team's preparation for this game has been rocked by player dissatisfaction regarding unpaid appearance fees and other petty issues that have threatened to derail their focus, but head coach Kwesi Appiah's team have a knack for rising up to the occasion when least expected.

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