Afcon 2023: Ghana and Hughton under intense pressure ahead of crunch clash with Egypt

Black Stars in need of a win after disappointing loss to Cape Verde in their opener

Ghana's head coach Chris Hughton has come under intense scrutiny after a dismal run of results. AP
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The first major casualty of an Africa Cup of Nations where almost every day produces a startling result looks imminent. Thursday’s matches were always liable to raise the temperature across West Africa, with Ivory Coast meeting Nigeria and Ghana involved in their own heavyweight bout. But few anticipated that Ghanaian supporters might be consulting bus timetables about a hasty return home.

The tournament’s structure, with four of the best third-place finishers progressing to the last 16, may be forgiving, but the task facing Ghana’s Black Stars, four times Afcon champions, is not. They face the competition’s most decorated nation, Egypt, needing to urgently salvage a campaign set back by a 2-1 defeat last Sunday to Cape Verde.

The travelling fans have not shown much of a forgiving side. Ghana’s head coach, Chris Hughton, had to be shielded from physical danger from an irate fan as the team returned to their Abidjan hotel after Cape Verde’s stoppage-time winner left Ghana at the foot of Group B.

“It’s the past,” said Hughton, facing questions about the incident for the first time. “And I appreciate the levels of support I have had and I do thank people for that.

“When we lose, it is very difficult. After a bad performance or a bad result, I am the leader who has to be able to concentrate on the next game. What’s important is that you put it in the past.”

For Hughton, who has a long and mostly distinguished managerial background in English football, including gaining promotion to the Premier League with Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion, the Ghana role threatens to be a brief and unfulfilling chapter.

Hughton, the son of a Ghanaian father, accepted the job having worked in an advisory role with the Black Stars coaching staff at the Qatar World Cup, 10 months ago. But 10 matches into his tenure, the lows have outnumbered the highs. Hughton’s three victories in competitive qualifiers so far, all against relative modest opposition, have all been achieved only with late goals. The loss to Cape Verde was Ghana’s fourth defeat in six outings.

The longer perspective is that one of the giants of African football, a standard-setter at Afcons, is in a chronic freefall. In six successive Cup of Nations tournaments to 2017, Ghana made at least the semi-finals, albeit without seizing a fifth title. In the last two events, they have reached the last 16 just once.

Would another failure here mean the failure of a generation, Jordan Ayew, at his sixth Afcon, was asked Wednesday. “Are we eliminated yet?” replied the Crystal Palace forward brusquely.

Hughton described the challenge of making up ground against Egypt, who were themselves within minutes of a shock setback in their opener – a Mohamed Salah penalty rescuing a point in stoppage time against Mozambique – as formidable.

“We’re up against a good, experienced team, who are used to doing very well in this competition,” he said. “On paper we are playing a very good side, a better team.”

The presence of Salah lends some truth to that, but a Ghana coach who can choose his attacking options from among Ayew and Antoine Semenyo, effective performers in the English Premier League and Inaki Williams, a model of attacking consistency with Athletic Bilbao in La Liga would hardly expect to be on a run of just two goals in six games.

A boost is anticipated in the possible return from injury of Mohamed Kudus, the West Ham United player who joined the Ghana squad late because of fitness issues and missed the opening game. “He has trained the last few days,” reported Hughton, “We’ll make a decision on him the day of the game.”

Egypt’s head coach believes that decision has been taken already. “We’re thinking he’ll play,” said Rui Vitoria, of Kudus, who has made an instant, positive impact on West Ham since joining from Ajax last summer. “He’s a fantastic player. He’s doing well in the Premier League.

“But we’re ready to face that calibre of player. Up front Ghana are very strong. What we have to do is improve our defending. The players know that.”

Egypt had allowed an early lead to turn into a perilous 2-1 deficit against Mozambique’s direct football until Salah’s late intervention.

“We had difficulties,” admitted Rui Vitoria. “But the reaction has been good. The problem comes if you don’t react well. It’s about wiping the slate clean, but not forgetting once you face the next challenge.

“We’re professional, we’re tough,” added Egypt’s coach. “We’re a big team.”

But the issue at this Afcon so far is that the so-called ‘big teams’ have not easily distinguished themselves from the apparent minnows. As the veteran Ayew, whose Ghana have lost their last two competitive matches to Cape Verde and the Comoros Islands, put it: “There are no little teams. We have known that for a couple of years. We now have to lift our heads up, look ahead and keep fighting.”

Updated: January 18, 2024, 5:47 AM