CABINDA, January 14 – Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien faces a great challenge of his international career when he captains Ghana against Ivory Coast here on Friday.The box-to-box workaholic with the biting tackle and thunderous drive must inspire an injury-ravaged ‘Black Stars’ side against the under-pressure Africa Cup of Nations title favourites in a crunch Group B clash.
It will be the second fixture in this restive northern Angola enclave where an ambush last Friday claimed two lives as the Togolese delegation crossed the border from a Congo training camp.
Togo later withdrew, leaving Ghana, Ivory Coast and outsiders Burkina Faso fighting for two quarter-fianls places and the Burkinabe threw a spanner in the works by forcing a goalless stalemate with the Ivorians.
Ghana go into the match without midfielders Anthony Annan, Stephen Appiah, Laryea Kingston and central defender John Pantsil and John Mensah because of injuries while Sulley Muntari was axed for indiscipline.
Withdrawals ahead of the tournament saw the number of starlets from the Ghana 2009 World youth championship-winning squad called up by Serb coach Milovan Rajevac swell to eight.
And Rajevac admitted that several could be in the starting line-up at the 20,000-seat Chiazi Stadium alongside Essien, who has had his own problems ahead of the biennial African football showcase.
A hamstring tear sidelined him in the build-up to the three-week tournament being staged in a Portuguese-speaking country for the first time and he arrived only 48 hours before the kick-off owing to snow-hit London airports.
"He has arrived in Cabinda and after training with his club recently should be physically fit to face the Ivorians," a Ghana team spokesman told reporters here.
The Ivorian ‘Elephants’, fourth two years ago in Ghana and runners-up to 2006 hosts Egypt, looked far from champions-elect against the ultra-cautious, well drilled Burkinabe ‘Stallions’ in the least exciting first round match.
Captain and Chelsea striker Didier Drogba said the aftermath of the Togo tragedy had affected a squad boasting stars like Kolo and Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou and Kouassi ‘Gervinho’ Yao.
Drogba says this will probably be his Nations Cup swansong and craves glory for a squad known as the "golden generation" but without a trophy to show for their sometimes sublime cocktail of skill and steel.
Defeat by Ghana, who have won five and drawn one of eight previous Nations Cup clashes between the west African neighbours, could lead to a sensational first round exit for Ivory Coast.
"We are now in a very difficult position but still have all the cards in our hands and I know we can go through to the knockout phase," insists Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
He also knows that first round failure would almost certainly cost him his job and a chance to lead the Ivory Coast against Portugal, Brazil and North Korea at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The final mini-league fixture between Ghana and Burkina Faso is scheduled for the 50,000-seat November 11 Stadium in the Angolan capital Luanda next Tuesday.