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Opinions of Tuesday, 31 January 2017


Opinion: Acheampong option proving valuable for Black Stars

So far, so good for Frank Acheampong So far, so good for Frank Acheampong

Franck Acheampong wasn’t expected to have a major impact for Ghana at the 2017 Nations Cup, yet due to circumstances beyond his control, the Anderlecht wideman is becoming a key figure in Avram Grant’s set-up.

So confident was the Israeli coach in Abdul Rahman Baba’s qualities at left-back, that he didn’t even both to take a reserve for that position to Gabon for the continental showpiece.

The main casualty, of course, was long-time back-up Jeffrey Schlupp, who has been Baba’s understudy for the last two years, and who has even replaced the Schalke loanee or played in tandem with him on occasion for the West Africans.

Yet Schlupp, ostensibly due to his lack of activity with reigning Premier League champions Leicester City this season—before a recent move to Crystal Palace—was axed, with Grant making the particularly risky decision of going it alone with Baba.

It was a choice that earned the former Chelsea boss criticism in the local media, with Grant’s choice seen as somewhat inconsistent considering the decision to take—and subsequently play—someone like Thomas Partey who has also been a peripheral figure at club level this season.

Grant’s roll of the dice appeared even more reckless after less than 45 minutes of Ghana’s Afcon campaign, when Baba fell to the turf against Uganda, writhing in discomfort, and signalled to the bench that his evening was over.

Despite the player’s subsequent optimism that his discomfort would clear, the problems were more serious than first feared, and the left-back now faces a considerable spell on the sidelines with a meniscus problem.

A bleak outcome for Baba, and a similarly catastrophic conclusion for Ghana, it would see, with the Black Stars now facing the rest of the Nations Cup without a recognised left-back.

At first, it appeared as though the decision to overlook Schlupp would prove costly—and potentially terminal—for Grant, yet the wily manager had, in Acheampong, a trump card.

The Belgium-based wideman may have looked uncertain at times during that second 45 minutes against Uganda, but he’s already shone in this role for Ghana—against Senegal in 2015, when Grant picked him ahead of Schlupp for the left-back role.

The player himself has no qualms about representing the Black Stars in a role other thank his typical position on the wing.

“Sometimes you have to play a different role to help your team,” he said after Sunday’s victory. “Sometimes I’m out of position, but I’m trying to look at what the other three are telling me, I’m happy to help the team.”

Acheampong demonstrated, in flashes, his offensive quality in the 1-0 victory over Mali—as Ghana kept a clean sheet to reach the last eight—and was overlooked for the defeat against Egypt.

Against the Democratic Republic of Congo, after returning to the starting XI, he not only showed his improving understanding with his fellow defenders and his astute positioning—despite a few hairy moments up against Junior Kabananga and Dieumerci Mbokani—but also helped remind the watching world of his offensive class.

During a turgid first half for Ghana, Acheampong was one of the few bright lights with his forays forward and his lightning pace, while his relationship with left-sider Andre Ayew also showed signs of great promise.

“As a player, footballers speak the same language,” he continued. “It doesn’t matter that [Andre] plays for a different team and we don’t play frequently, I have to adapt and get our combination to help Ghana as a whole.”

While Acheampong has admitted that he’s still learning the ropes as a left-back, he insisted that he does have experience of playing in the backline,

“It’s not that new,” he continued. “I’m used to playing on the left wing, so a little bit defensive and everything will be ok.”

Indeed, Cameroon will certainly be considering him as a potential threat for the Black Stars, rather than a weak link, ahead of their semi-final in Franceville on Thursday.

“Gradually [I’m learning in left-back], but if you really know me, I’ve played [here] for a lot of big games,” the wideman concluded. “I’ve played against Arsenal, [Borussia] Dortmund, and sometimes it’s a bit shaky, but sometimes it’s also a plus for me to play two or more positions.”

Yet again, perhaps, a decision that ostensibly appeared risky for Grant has turned into a potential bonus for the Black Stars. Acheampong is no Baba, but you won’t find the name ‘Schlupp’ muttered too often among Ghanaian fans and journalists after the Anderlecht star helped Ghana into the final four.