Ghana will be looking to regain its formidable form of the ’90s when it takes on last edition’s runner-up Mali in the first quarterfinal of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup at the Indira Gandhi Stadium here on Saturday.
The match-up of the two remaining African sides will be interesting considering their achievements in the youth level World Cup.
Practically ruling the final decade of the last century, Ghana had a medal in each of the five editions falling within that period. Beginning with the maiden crown in 1991, it reached four successive finals picking up two titles and as many runner-up spots before finishing a creditable third in the 1999 edition.
Mali made its first big impression finishing runner-up against Nigeria in the last edition (2015) in Chile. It had never progressed beyond the quarterfinals prior to that.
However, on the scale of performances in the recent past, Mali have emerged a stronger team. They were continental champions in the last two editions, winning the CAF U-17 Cup of Nations in 2015 and 2017. This year they beat Ghana by a solitary goal to be the best in Africa and will look to extend that supremacy.
In this tournament, Mali has been better on the offensive, while Ghana has been more resolute in defence.
The African champion’s consistency in attacking is evident in the regularity with which it has found the target.
After its 3-2 loss to Paraguay, Mali made a spectacular improvement scoring 11 goals in the next three matches, including its 5-1 win over Iraq in the pre-quarterfinals.
Mali’s performance has been marked by robust flank play with players like Lassana N’Diaye, Abdoulaye Diaby, Mamadou Samake and Salam Jiddou being prominent.
“We know each other very well and are prepared for the match. It will be a good one to watch,” Jiddou had reasons to predict a close contest.
Mali will be looking at N’Diaye, who shares the top spot in the scoring chart with France’s Amine Gouiri, to remain as effective in the striking zone.
Ghana’s progress has not been as spectacular, but the team managed a good defensive record conceding just one goal in four matches. Ever since its 1-0 loss to the USA in the opening match, Ghana has defended better than most other sides in the tournament.
The team has been fielding on an average five specialist defenders with the captain Eric Ayiah as the lone man in attack. The Ghanaian approach till now has been more about surprising the opponent with speedy counterattacks.
Injury to defender Bismark Owusu is the only concern for Ghana, which again has five players under the booking cloud. “It’s payback time,” Najeeb Yakubu sounded the bugle ahead of the big West African duel.