Ghana Black Stars became the only AFCON 2019 favourite to walk down the tunnel with a point after the first round of matches.
A draw fit for the script. This is the fourth drawn game in last six matches between the two sides. Ghana and Benin not only share the points but also the victories with each team winning one apiece.
So when Benin ambassador to Ghana said the two teams are equally strong, she was a biased patriotic. She was a correct pundit.
Pay no attention to a FIFA ranking that places Ghana at 50 and Benin at 83. Or to the fact that it’s been nine years since Benin got here at AFCON.
The Squirrels didn’t look rusty after this long absence and it took less than 60 seconds to announce their presence.
Ghana’s defensive line was as high as the centre circle when a Beninois player’s arrowed pass split the defence, leaving Pote a chance to marginally outsprint two defenders, John Boye and Lumor Agbenyenu. A Pote shot suddenly left Ghana hot.
Forget rusty. This was feisty.
Inside the poorly spectated stadium in Ismailia, a motely Beninese crowd shouted goal in Egypt. Remotely, just outside my window, Ghanaian fans screamed the word too.
Minutes later a Beninese player tore off Thomas Partey in trying to wrestle him off the ball. The torn shirt perhaps symbolised how the defence was torn quickly and in a sense how Ghanaian support for the Stars has been torn apart gradually.
But before the country would get sucked into what former President John Mahama described as the “vortex of cynicism”, captain Dede Ayew silenced the made-in-Ghana opposition.
Adams from deep found Jordan Ayew locking on to his long searching pass to the right. The Crystal Palace striker cut in to find Atsu inside the box but it ricocheted off a defender’s leg and fell quite clumsily to Dede Ayew.
Slanting his body backwards some degrees away from 90, he gave his left leg enough room to cut a low shot into the near post.
Kwesi Appiah fielded a 4-2-3-1 team that was happy to run down the wingers to latch on to Stoke City-style passes from deep.
In Thomas Agyepong and Christian Atsu, the Black Stars had speedsters for the squirrels to play catch-me-if-you-can. It was a plan that did not go unmatched by the Squirrels, a name associated with speed anyway.
The Benin team funnelled their goal-scoring ideas down the right with full back Moise Adilehou usually having acres of space to sling in crosses.
But Ghana’s success came through the middle actually. The second goal, a repeated reliable template of the first. This time Partey sitting deep, let off a long pass that for a moment reduced all the other 19 players into watching a duel for the ball between Jordan and Veron with the Benin defender favourite to snuff out the pass as Jordan man-marked.
But Veron let himself down by poor ball control as it squirmed past under his boot to give Jordan with a bonus question of how to beat the keeper. He swivelled on the ball to find it on his stronger foot and bludgeoned it into the top corner of the near post.
Ghana ended the half on a high with that strike, reasonably content that the Black Stars wouldn’t have to stew over the early goal as they head into the break.
The Ghanaians looked good enough to hold this lead in the second half. They did.
That red card for John Boye will single out the player for unforgiving Ghanaian criticisms. He had picked a yellow for sticking out his leg hastily. This time, he got another for not sticking out his leg more quickly.
Boye felt it necessary to play time-wasting antics quite associated with north African teams. He waited on the ball only to dummy everybody and invite the keeper to spray a pass.
The Tunisian referee was unenthused by this 53rd minute antics. John was off. And the Benin players must have smelled blood in the team muzzled by one man down.
Not that the Black Stars were overawed. Ghanaian teams are quite drilled much more in the art of defending than attacking – notoriously called the one-goal project.
And with this Beninois team, their attack carried no fame or instilled no fears. If there had to be an equaliser, it would have to be something special or quick as pulling a rabbit from a hat.
They chose quick. A hastily taken corner in the 63rd minute did not allow the Black Stars to arrange their defending corner tactic. Unsettled by a quick pass to Pote inside the penalty box, the players dashed towards the threat.
Pote was quick to turn the ball inside the net via a slight deflection as the squirrels stole an equaliser much like how the medium-sized rodent steals a chestnut.
Forwards David Djigla’s 82-minute shot and Steve Mounie’s 90-minute header would feel for the Beninois a lost opportunity to win their first-ever game at an AFCON after four appearances.
But they would have to wait to try again on Guinea-Bissau who lost their opening game to defending champions Cameroon.
Ghana, well, their Ismailia base is about 120 kilometres from the capital, Cairo, where the finals will be played.
Quite a distance to travel and a draw even makes that 120 km journey a long road away.