Ghana stamp their mark on finals
This time, American powers of recovery were not enough. The trick could not be repeated and Africa still has a standard bearer.
Bill Clinton, himself a one-time "comeback kid" may have lent presidential support to Team USA in Rustenberg but his team now have to start thinking of tomorrow as a day to prepare for departure from South Africa. Yesterday has indeed gone, and the "American Spirit" that saved them three times in the group stages was not enough.
Twice in this match, at the beginning of both normal and extra time, Ghanaian goals left mountains to climb. The habits of previous matches were repeated but the escapology was not. Bob Bradley admitted where it had gone wrong and was always likely to. "We put ourselves in that spot one too many times," he said. "In overtime we hurt ourselves by giving up the early goal once again. We're disappointed we did not give ourselves a chance."
Ghana had not played like a team with the pressure of an entire continent's eyes on them. Their dominance of the first half was not matched in the second but, aside from some American sighters, and an Altidore poke that flew wide, their defence was a frequent annoyance to an opponent who ran out of ideas late on. The outstanding Andre Ayew explained his team's progress to the last eight. "We fought to the last," he said. "We fought for the continent and we hope it is proud."
Africa can indeed be proud, for this is a team with plenty left in the tank, that brims with young talent. Uruguay should beware of their physicality and now, after not scoring from open play in the group stages, their ability to score great goals like those rattled in by Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan.
Rustenberg looked to playing something of an unexpected host to the Americans, with many an English flag reflecting surprise in the way that Group C had worked out. The bars outside the ground were by no means as rammed as two weeks previously when England were in town, and the stadium itself looked markedly less than full. Indeed, English flags still managed to outnumber the Stars and Stripes as many no doubt planned to take in this game before a late-night/early-morning drive to Bloemfontein, six hours or more away.
Here, Africa's lone adventurers were given the full backing of the neutrals. Any surge by the Black Stars was met with ripples of audible enthusiasm and that fervour was rewarded with Boateng's fifth minute strike. Loping through a flat-footed American defence after an error by Ricardo Clark, Boateng caught Tim Howard out with the timing and low trajectory of his strike. Just as against England and Slovenia, USA had been given an early setback to overcome. They did draw level, only to again be exposed in the first extra time of their World Cup history.
In extra-time, there was no Robert Green to save them and the Ghanaian defence possessed significantly more physical presence than that of the Slovenians and greater staying power than the Algerians.
Bob Bradley's brave switching of his armoury in this tournament has seen him singled out for high praise, and once again the USA coach took rapid action in removing the pedestrian Clark for Maurice Edu after just 31 minutes. Robbie Findley, the all-action but ultimately toothless striker who had blown his team's best chance of the first 45, took half-time leave in favour of Benny Feilhaber. A revival was henceforth staged, right from the whistle and the Ghanaians were already looking ragged when Jonathan Mensah hacked down Clint Dempsey in the area to supply a lifeline.
Landon Donovan has, after that horrible 2006 tournament, become the man for his country's big occasions once again. A nerveless penalty, rattled off the inside of the post, levelled matters and had Americans dreaming once again. Ghana meanwhile, had lost their impetus and began to bear resemblance to the team doubted in the group stages. They found themselves as the team holding on for full-time and their own managerial pep-talk though the arrival of veteran Stephen Appiah, for Boateng, had already begun to steady the ship.
Coach Milovan Rajevac got his chance to regroup, after Jozy Altidore scuffed USA's best chance of a winner wide of Kingson's post. Both teams were entering unknown tournament territory in extra-time but there was also an unwelcome repeating of American history. Gyan scored a markedly similar strike to that of Boateng in powering through Bocanegra and blasting his shot past Tim Howard. This time, the comeback was not to be mounted. This was an altogether more canny opponent for the Americans to overcome, and one whose athleticism was superior and depth of fitness deeper.
Africa's most pragmatic side flew in the face of tired clichés about naivety defining players from this continent with a slow strangulation of the game via some rather unseemly play-acting, highly conservative passing moves and keeping just one player at a time up front. Even when Howard was launched up front late on to stage an unlikely aerial duel with Kingson, his opposite number, they remained solid to the last and the celebrations and dance moves could kick into gear.
The next step for Ghana is one into the unknown, previously only trodden by Cameroon and Senegal. "Me and my colleagues were disappointed there were no African teams with us," said Ayew. "We feel we have Africa behind us and that gives us the energy to fight more."
Bradley, with home time on the horizon, was sanguine in defeat. "We had the country behind us and great fans in the stadium and we had belief," he said but admitted that "when you get to World Cup level we know we have to get better."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephen Appiah. The likes of Gyan, Ayew and Boateng played more of this match but the arrival of the virtually clubless former captain allowed Ghana to wrest back control of the midfield when the Americans were beginning to overrun them. His poise provided a platform for victory.
USA VERDICT: An exit at this stage will register as a disappointment when hopes were so high but this time the frailties were exposed. A lack of pace at the back and an over-reliance on the likes of Donovan and Dempsey are disadvantages that this time could be countered. Bob Bradley can take credit for an often thrilling campaign but his desolation was apparent in the immediate aftermath.
GHANA VERDICT: They married attacking quality with grit and an appreciation of the dark arts, much like, in fact, their next opponents in Uruguay. They are resilient too and any panic abated once they recovered from USA's expected second-half onslaught.
SOCCER CITY AWAITS: Uruguay v Ghana may have seemed unlikely at the beginning of this tournament but promises much. Judging by some of the strong-arm stuff served up by Ghana and Uruguay's gamesmanship in Port Elizabeth, the referee could be busy. As it is, Ghana look likely to be without the injured Boateng while suspensions rob Rajevac of Jonathan Mensah and Andre Ayew.