By Sammie Frimpong
Marking a player who is arguably the world’s finest attacker could prove an absolute embarrassment and a real nightmare for any defender. Conversely, it could earn that guardsman much global acclaim should he excel at the task.
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Either way, that job ought to be somebody’s when Ghana play Portugal in Group G’s second round of fixtures at Brazil 2014. Like it or not, it has to be Cristiano Ronaldo versus someone from Ghana, and the world, needless to say, would be watching.
So whose duty would it be, then?
Here are a few candidates:
DANIEL OPARE – Standard Liege
For at least a year, Daniel Opare and Ronaldo enjoyed the shared pleasure of donning Real Madrid’s white shirt, only that the Ghanaian played for the club’s Castilla while the latter featured for the senior team itself. Actually, the pair did spend some time together at the Valdebebas training grounds in 2010 after then Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini invited Opare, along with a few other canteranos, to join the first team albeit only temporarily. Opare might even have been Ronaldo’s team-mate now, but for injuries that curtailed his ambitions with Los Blancos and saw him transferred to Standard Liege in Belgium. Opare has always abounded in potential since his days with Ghana’s Under-17 side. Twice he has been entrusted by the Black Stars’ handlers to put the brakes on two of world football’s most prodigious youngsters: Neymar, when Ghana played Brazil in a friendly four years ago; and Mohamed Salah, whose Egypt Ghana trounced en route to registering a place at next year’s World Cup finals.
Opare’s occasionally careless and excessively aggressive style have earned him some criticism, yet if against Ronaldo he can fulfill Ghanaian tactician Isaac ‘Opeele’ Boateng’s prediction that he (Opare) “is very stubborn on the pitch and on one-on-one situations with Ronaldo, he can out-fox and out-box him,” it could return the youngster to the trajectory to greatness his exploits at junior level for Ghana first placed him on.
SAMUEL INKOOM – Dnipro
Inkoom, who drew comparisons with Ivorian Emmanuel Eboue early in his career, has been involved in a battle of sorts with Opare for the Stars’ right-back role lately, with no clear winner emerging yet. If the sentiments of Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah – who recently described Inkoom as ‘one of the best around’ – are anything to go by, though, the 24-year-old appears a slight favourite. A common denominator in the careers of Opare and Inkoom, quite interestingly, is former Tottenham Hotspur manager Juande Ramos, under whom the two defenders joined Madrid and Ukrainian side Dnipro respectively. And while Opare blossomed under Ramos’ indirect watch, Inkoom has fallen out spectacularly with the Spaniard, with the resulting feud damaging Inkoom’s first team prospects at Dnipro and guaranteeing him very little playtime this season, thus triggering a situation which might even affect his chances of making Ghana’s squad for the World Cup. Thankfully, Inkoom has claimed interest from some English Premier League clubs, among them Crystal Palace and Norwich, with a move in January 2014 apparently being lined up. It might just be the boost he requires ahead of a potential meeting with Ronaldo.
HARRISON AFFUL – Esperance
Like Inkoom, Afful is incredibly versatile and capable of playing on either wing in defence. Some of his best displays for Ghana, at least in the opinion of this writer, have come on the right where he has neutralised many a formidable opponent. In recent times, though, Afful has made the left-back position his own, yet if ever he is identified and utilised as the man to hold Ronaldo down, you can be sure he would not come up short. For a player who hasn’t enjoyed much experience in European football – bar a few days spent on trials with KV Mechelen and Feyenoord in the Netherlands as well as Sweden’s Helsingborg IF – Afful’s handful of detractors might question his expertise in dealing with a talent of Ronaldo’s calibre. Should a speculated transfer to Herve Renard’s Sochaux in the winter window happen, though, that little anomaly blighting Afful’s career thus far might be rectified, ensuring the three-time Caf Champions League finalist acquires that extra proficiency that comes with playing at the highest level which would all but complete his CV should he be considered for man-marking duties against the Portuguese.
MICHAEL ESSIEN – Chelsea
So, then, assuming Ghana coach Appiah decides to ignore the three players nominated above (or indeed any other viable option there may be) in favour of a more experienced, renowned, and proven contemporary of Ronaldo’s – perhaps one who has even played both with and against the one-time Ballon D’Or winner – just who might he go for?
Surely, none better than old horse Michael Essien! The midfielder certainly ticks all of those boxes and more. Before Essien switched to operate in the centre of the pitch, he had been one of the brightest defensive prospects Ghana had seen in a long while. At Chelsea – where he featured often against Ronaldo’s Manchester United – and later at Real Madrid – where he teamed up with the silky Portuguese winger during a season’s loan stint away from Stamford Bridge – Essien was occasionally used by manager and mentor Jose Mourinho in times of contingency at right-back and thus would know a thing or two on how to deal with the world’s best. His pace and strength might have declined a few notches as he has aged, but the ‘Bison’ still remains a force to be reckoned with, boasting a reputation that could make even Ronaldo quiver on any day.
Let the auditions begin!