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Mar 29, 2011

Black Stars light up Wembley

Sir Alex Ferguson should try telling Ghana fans that international friendlies are a "waste of time". A day after the Manchester United boss also labelled the fixtures "worthless", 21,000 ecstatic Black Stars supporters celebrated Asamoah Gyan's last-gasp Wembley equaliser as though it had erased all the heartache of last summer's World Cup quarter-final exit in an instant.

• Carroll: I can deliver goals
• Capello justifies Welbeck call-up
• International friendlies review
• Friendlies Gallery Photo Gallery

Gyan's leveller was a fitting reward for Ghana's industrious players and their incredible followers who, teeming with technicolour and vociferous in volume, helped create the sort of carnival atmosphere not experienced in an international at Wembley since Euro '96. "I have never seen anything like it in my life, they are the greatest fans, for me, in the world," Black Stars coach Goran Stevanovic beamed after the game.

It felt closer to Accra than Acton, especially in the press box where partisan Ghanaian journalists sported Black Stars hats, scarves, headbands and tracksuits to make sure their English counterparts knew exactly where their allegiance lay. They belted out the national anthem and were deafening when the tireless Gyan finally got the goal that his persistence deserved. Time and again it had seemed Ghana's fanatical faithful would leave empty handed. But, drawing on the spirit that made them the neutrals' undisputed favourite in South Africa, they upset the odds again, as the Sunderland striker tiptoed inside Joleon Lescott and curled a left-foot effort past Joe Hart in stoppage time.

Stevanovic's side displayed plenty of attacking intent and the African visitors were certainly given plenty to cheer about by a side determined to prove why they made last summer's quarter-finals while England laboured to a disappointing second-round exit. Gyan and Dominic Adiyiah were bursting with energy and their movement, coupled with Sulley Muntari's guile, served to fluster Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and later Lescott.

Hart was called into action to deny Adiyiah twice in the first-half. The Ghana striker first sped onto a through-ball from Muntari that bamboozled both Jagielka and Cahill, but the Manchester City goalkeeper rushed out of his goal and diverted the ball to safety. Hart was again required minutes later, producing a sensational diving save to prevent Adiyiah's back-post shot from creeping in.

But Ghana were to head into the interval behind. Almost 15 years after Alan Shearer first really demonstrated his international pedigree by lighting up the European Championships at Wembley, his heir apparent and fellow Geordie No. 9 Andy Carroll snatched the first goal of what Three Lions fans hope can be an equally impressive England career. Carroll's first-half strike - a low, left-foot effort following Stewart Downing's slightly miscontrolled lay-off - demonstrated the sort of anticipation and finishing prowess that convinced Liverpool to part with a club-record £35 million in January.

The journalists who had been sharpening their claws to launch another stinging attack on Fabio Capello were probably a touch disappointed to see Carroll score, a player who would probably not have started had Wayne Rooney not been sent home to rest by the England coach. Speaking in the post-match conference, Capello praised the Liverpool striker. "I remember Carroll before he suffered his injury - he ran a lot, always fought," he said. "He scored a goal [tonight], he needs more time and games to improve, but he is important."

The Italian was also armed ready with a response to the pre-match vitriol directed at him by the press in both England and Ghana on the back of his decision to send five players home. He said: "I'm really happy because I saw a fantastic game, not a friendly game. I read that you wrote a lot about this, [but] I think it was an exciting game and it has been an important game for the fans to see some players who have never played here. It was a really good, fast game. It's not easy to see a friendly game like this."

Having been derided for his decision to field what critics claimed was tantamount to a B-team, it at least became apparent that the Italian could count on the backing of the England supporters' band. And as their trumpets and drums blared out the A-Team theme tune off the pitch, the players did their best to prove their worth on it.

Carroll was not alone in catching the eye. Ashley Young followed up his superb showing against Wales with another classy display, taking on the role of England's playmaker-in-chief with aplomb. Young's delicately chipped through-ball led to Carroll's goal, while 20 minutes earlier the Aston Villa winger thought he had added a memorable 25-yarder to his scrapbook only to see the scrambling Ghana goalkeeper Richard Kingson produce a stunning acrobatic save.

Jack Wilshere had one of his quieter games in England colours but still looked the part when collecting the ball from deep. Bringing a calming influence to Capello's midfield, the Arsenal starlet's ability to move play seamlessly from defence to attack through either pass or dribble will see him continue to be play an integral role when the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign resumes in June. The presence of the industrious Wilshere and James Milner seemed to also bring the best out of captain for the day Gareth Barry, who enjoyed one of his better games in England colours, culminating in an audacious overhead kick attempt in the final ten minutes.

The 1-1 draw should ensure Capello escapes his now customary media roasting in Wednesday's newspapers, though this time it will be because the passion and persistence of Ghana's Black Stars once again steals the headlines.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Asamoah Gyan. As he did for three weeks in South Africa, Gyan worked his socks off for 90 minutes at Wembley and his superbly-taken equaliser was the least he deserved. His name received by far the loudest cheer when read out before the match and the hard-working Sunderland striker remains a national hero after his exploits last summer.

ENGLAND VERDICT: There isn't too much for Capello to complain about as the players he brought in did their jobs admirably, though it was Young and Wilshere - both of whom started against Wales - who looked most at home. Barry played well, but the more defensively tenacious Scott Parker will probably be preferred against Switzerland in June and Carroll must show a prolific streak between now and the end of the season if he is to usurp Darren Bent.

GHANA VERDICT: Defensively naive but offensively adventurous, the Black Stars looked significantly better when Lee Addy - who was led a merry dance by Downing in the first half - was replaced at the interval. The introduction of Andre Ayew gave Ghana more attacking impetus in the second half but Stavanovic will leave delighted with the result, which was also achieved without inspirational captain Michael Essien.

VUVU-FAILURE: The sound of musical instruments and vuvuzelas could be heard as soon as fans stepped out of Wembley station but as the stadium drew closer, a PA announcement asserted that they would not be allowed inside the ground. Fortunately, wily supporters were able to smuggle in whistles and trumpets anyway, ensuring that the FA's attempts to ban anything conducive to fun was in vain.

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