With the World Cup’s first game now less than 50 days away in South Africa, Ghana’s chances of likely joining Germany as the two teams to advance from Group D took a huge hit with an injury to Michael Essien, easily the country’s best player.
Essien is a star midfielder for Chelsea in the English Premier League, and he suffered a torn hamstring during Champions League play in December. He returned to play the second half for Ghana against Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations of Jan. 15, but then injured his right knee two days later during training. Back then it was assumed it was nothing major and that he would be able to suit up at some point again for Chelsea this season and certainly for the World Cup. However, Chelsea issued a statement this week saying Essien would miss the rest of the EPL season due to swelling in his knee, and that this latest news places his World Cup hopes in the balance. The 27-year-old had hoped to return to league play this Sunday.
"It looks unlikely I will play again for Chelsea this season," Essien said. "I started running last week but had to stop because of pain in my leg. It is a minor setback but one I could do without. … I am just taking it day by day and if I can make it I will. If not then I will have sit at home and support the team like every Ghanaian.”
Obviously it would be a shame if Ghana’s best player can’t play in the first-ever World Cup in Africa. At full strength, the Black Stars seem to be the cream of the crop among the African nations, as they were the first to qualify for the World Cup and did it with two games to spare. Their midfield trio of Essien, Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah potentially makes them a chore for any team. Appiah has been dealing with his own major leg injury the past two years but says he will be ready for South Africa.
The Black Stars (50/1 to win the World Cup on Bodog) will play warm-up matches against Latvia, Holland and a yet to be named third opponent in Europe.
At the 2006 World Cup, Ghana was the only African team to the knockout round (besting the U.S and Czech Republic in the process) before losing to Brazil – a game Essien missed due to a yellow card received in the game before against the Americans. No African nation has made it to the World Cup semifinals and only two nations have made it as far as the quarterfinals – Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002). Ghana opens World Cup play against Serbia on June 13 in Pretoria and is currently a +185 underdog to the Serbs on Bodog’s odds.
If Ghana advances, it could face the U.S. again after beating the Americans in group stage play 2-1 in 2006.
“We are in a strong group with Australia, Germany and Serbia; and all the matches will be tough,” Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac said. “The opening match is against Serbia and as a Serb, I know much about them. Australia has a strong team and Germany are the favorites in the group. For us, our target is to advance from the group stage and will move on from there.”
The biggest benefactors, potentially, of this injury might be Australia in Group D. I say the Aussies because they are certainly considered the least likely team to advance out of Group D. If the Socceroos, in just their third World Cup, can somehow draw Germany in their opening match and then beat Ghana five days later that may be enough to reach the knockout round.