African Cup of Nations - Ghana open with nervy win
Ghana enjoyed a winning start to their African Cup of Nations Group D campaign but had to see out the game with 10 men when beating tournament debutants Botswana 1-0 in Franceville.
The Black Stars, four-times winners and runners-up in 2010, came into the tournament with a reputation as Africa's finest side to uphold and would have expected to easily brush aside a Botswana side ranked 95th in the world, particularly when John Mensah got on the end of a corner to score after 25 minutes.
However, Botswana refused to be intimidated by the 2010 World Cup quarter-finalist, and the minnows nearly equalised when they had a shot cleared off the line in the 52th minute. They also then played the final 23 minutes with a man advantage as Ghana goalscorer Mensah was dismissed for bringing down Jerome Ramatlhokwane as the striker raced through on goal.
Goran Stevanovic's side did enough to hold on for a win to open their campaign but, coming in the wake of Senegal's defeat to Zambia and Ivory Coast's narrow win over Sudan, it was further evidence that the established powers are unlikely to have it all their own way in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in a tournament that had already shed a number of established nations in the qualifying process.
Indeed, Botswana conceded only three goals when shocking the African establishment to top qualifying Group A ahead of Tunisia and Togo and demonstrated their robust qualities again during their first ever game at a finals tournament when sitting deep and committing to a series of hard challenges.
The excellent Asamoah Gyan was on the receiving end of one such tackle from Patrick Motsepe in the opening exchanges as the Botswana star somehow escaped a card when going in late and high on the striker, catching him above the ankle.
Ghana predictably dominated possession against the underdogs but found chances hard to come by, with Botswana's defence appearing well drilled by coach Stanley Tshosane, who is in fact an army colonel.
The Black Stars largely threatened through Marseille's Andre Ayew from wide positions and former Sunderland and Portsmouth midfielder Sulley Muntari, who was tucked in behind Gyan in a central position and produced a succession of clever through-balls.
Meanwhile, the younger Ayew - Jordan, also of Marseille, who flanked Muntari from the opposite wing - played a one-two with Gyan on the edge of the box and sent a curling effort into the arms of Modiri Marumo.
Ghana would be frustrated until 25 minutes when they punished Botswana from a set-piece. Gyan ran to the near post to get the thinnest of flick-ons to a corner and his header turned the ball into the path of Mensah, who kneed the ball home from close range when unmarked.
With Botswana limited to sporadic shots from range and lone striker Ramatlhokwane an isolated presence, the onus was on Ghana to press forward and widen their lead, with Muntari taking an increasingly influential role from his advanced position in midfield.
The Internazionale midfielder tried to release Gyan with a number of cute passes and also saw a firm effort of his own kept out by a super-human block from the flying Ndiapo Letsholathebe.
When Gyan did get away from his marker on the right of the box, he unleashed a ferocious effort from a tight angle that flew well off target, leaving Ghana's lead at the one goal heading into half-time.
Just seven minutes into the second half they should have been on equal terms: Botswana constructed an unexpectedly accomplished attack and Mompati Thuma's deep cross was met by Moemedi Moatlhaping, whose firm header beat Adam Kwarasey and appeared to be heading in.
However, John Boye was alert on the line and, with Phenyo Mongala lurking on his shoulder, executed a fantastic overhead clearance off the line to retain his side's slender lead.
Just two minutes later, Mosimanegape Ramohibidu emulated his opponent with another superb piece of defending. Andre Ayew had taken a neat touch from a Muntari pass to open up the penalty area but the sliding block from the Botswana right-back prevented him from testing Marumo.
Botswana's increased ambition was rewarded on 67 minutes when Ghana were put under pressure from a clearance. Anthony Annan was forced into a poor back header, allowing Ramatlhokwane to race through on goal, with Mensah in hot pursuit.
The Ghana defender clumsily bundled his opponent to the ground as Ramatlhokwane approached the penalty area and was shown a deserved red card; Ghana went unpunished from the set-piece as the act of self-sacrifice worked.
The Black Stars responded to the set-back by removing Muntari and bringing on Jonathan Mensah to shore up the defence, though Andre Ayew would not surrender his own attacking mentality when attempting a Pele-esque shot from the half-way line that flew out of play, somewhat fittingly given his famous father Abedi Pele was named in honour of the Brazilian great.
Though Botswana began to pepper the Ghana box with a succession of crosses in the closing minutes, Ghana held on to open their campaign with a hard-fought but deserved victory.