Hosts Senegal face holders Ghana in new-look WAFU Cup final
THIES, Senegal -- Hosts Senegal will square off with holders Ghana at Stade Lot Dior in Thies on Sunday, in the first final of the new-look WAFU Cup of Nations.
It's a clash that should be a delight for neutrals, with the finalists having been the top two seeded sides ahead of the draw, and being among the most eye-catching teams going forward during the two-week regional West African showpiece.
The revised WAFU Cup of Nations format means that no side is eliminated after the first round matches, with the losers dropping into the newly conceived Plate competition ensuring that all 16 competing nations have the chance to play at least two matches.
Ghana entered the tournament having not had a domestic league since June 2018, due to the corruption crisis enveloping football there, hence coach Maxwell Konadu had his work cut out attempting to assemble a local squad of players with the Ghana Premier League only due to resume in November.
The reigning champions, who won the title on home soil two years ago, were in danger of a first-round exit after toiling against Gambia in their opener, but they have steadily grown into the tournament, as the players have found match sharpness and begun to rediscover the rhythm of competitive action.
"I think Ghanaians appreciate what we are doing for the country, and with this team in particular," Konadu said after his side's 3-1 semifinal victory over Ivory Coast. "I've been on this team for the past six years, and we keep improving year after year.
"Only one member [of the 2017-winning squad] is with this team now, so we've had to assemble a new team.
"It wasn't easy.
"We had to gather players together to compete and we keep improving."
When Ghana fell behind in their quarterfinal against old foe Burkina Faso -- who recently defeated the Black Stars in Kumasi in an African Nations Championship qualifier -- it appeared as though this rusty team had been found out.
But Ghana demonstrated their quality to equalise through captain Shafiu Mumuni who, along with Augustine Okrah and Joseph Esso, has been part of an impressive attacking unit.
After riding their luck to dispatch the Stallions on penalties -- with Eric Ofori Antwi making two fine stops -- they blitzed a fancied Ivory Coast in the semifinals, with Mumuni scoring a 20-minute hat-trick, the first in the tournament's history.
"In the final, we'll play better football than we did against the Ivory Coast," Konadu said. "Even though we scored three goals, I believe they played a bit better than we did."
Reaching Sunday's final has been an excellent achievement for Ghana, although they're up against a Senegal side that boasts a physical and athletic defensive unit, inspiration going forward, and a cutting edge up front.
While there's been little this tournament to match Ghana's second-half blitz of Ivory Coast, the Teranga Lions push them close for attacking quality, having flexed their attacking muscles against a strong Mali side in the semifinals and by dispatching Guinea-Bissau 3-1 in their opener.
However, they have their flaws; they were rattled when Guinean-Bissau pulled a goal back to give themselves a fighting chance of progression, and they were largely neutralised by a Benin side without two of their key players in the quarterfinals.
Indeed, the Squirrels were firmly in that contest until goalkeeper Sheyi Damilola spilled a shot into the path of Philippe Paulin Keny, with Senegal striker Youssouph Badji squandering a series of chances.
Similarly, the Lions let the occasion get to them at times in their semifinal against Mali, with star man Ibrahima Drame very lucky not to have seen a red card after striking Issaka Samake after a touchline tangle between the pair.
That Drame stayed on the pitch to score the opener, then win the penalty for Senegal's second, only fuelled Mali's sense of injustice.
If Ghana can stifle and frustrate the hosts, in front of what will be a capacity, partisan crowd, then Senegalese nerves, and a lack of mental composure on the part of some of these young, talented players, may prompt similar reactions.
Only Saturday, Cape Verde and Guinea will contest the Plate final.
The former, represnting the smallest country in West Africa, have been one of the most impressive sides in Senegal, notably for bouncing back from their opening 4-1 rout at the hands of Ivory Coast and to come back from one goal down to defeat Nigeria.
They then dispatched Gambia in the semifinal to set up a meeting with Guinea, who, like Nigeria, dropped into the Plate after losing their opener despite being seeded before the draw.
Cape Verde's only previous appearance in a football final came on homesoil in 2000, when they defeated Senegal in Praia to win the Amilcar Cabral Cup -- a predecessor to this Wafu competition.
"It's a very important day for my players," coach Janito Carvalho said after their semifinal triumph. "We have a good team spirit, Cape Verdeans are a people of sacrifice.
"We don't have rain, the sun is always shining, but we have big problems [back home], but we fight a lot. This is our spirit.
"We decided to bring all of these good things we have to the field, and that's how we try to push our players to win the games. We have good quality in the team, and our experienced guys are driving these players through this competition."
Guinea's opening defeat by Benin is proving to be a blessing in disguise, as they have progressed to the Plate final without conceding another goal while the Squirrels were dumped by Senegal in the quarterfinals of the Cup competition.
"When we came to this tournament we didn't have much time for preparation, maybe three weeks," Guinea coach Lappe Bangoura told ESPN. "We were strong against Guinea-Bissau -- physically, we held our own -- and we scored two late goals when our opponents couldn't hold on anymore.
"Then we improved our qualities, correct our weaknesses, and the team have responded."
Guinea, like Cape Verde, have tasted success previously only in the Amilcar Cabral Cup -- winning five titles between 1981 and 2005 -- and there's no doubt that victory in Saturday's final would represent a significant achievement for this squad.
- Watch the WAFU Cup of Nations Plate final, Saturday Oct. 12, from 8 p.m. (CAT) / 2 p.m. (ET) on ESPN (Africa only) and ESPN+ (U.S.) only.
- Watch the WAFU Cup of Nations Cup final, Sunday Oct. 13, from 8 p.m. (CAT) / 2 p.m. (ET) on ESPN (Africa only) and ESPN+ (U.S.) only.