Following their quarterfinal run in the 2010 World Cup, Ghana were tipped as the future of African football and a potential darkhorse for a deep run at the 2014 World Cup. All of their best players were emerging stars or players in the middle of their primes, while Ivory Coast relied on veterans and other African sides appeared to be very much in transition.
Fast forward three years and through a major tournament, and Ghana appear to have stagnated, at best. They're still one of the favorites to win the Africa Cup of Nations, but they're hardly the powerhouse that they were expected to be. Some of their best players are missing through injury, some have decided they want little to do with international football, and some just haven't progressed like they should have.
Kevin-Prince Boateng has 'retired' from international football, though he'll probably reconsider when he's begged to return for the World Cup. The Ayew brothers are missing, seemingly through a combination of injury and not being too enthusiastic about the tournament. Sammy Inkoom hasn't made the trip to South Africa either, while John Mensah, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien have not aged well recently.
Meanwhile, Lee Addy and Daniel Opare have seen their careers stall. Quincy never developed beyond being a guy who runs fast, and the once highly-touted Dominic Adiyah is struggling to make his mark in Ukraine. Afriyie Acquah is having a mediocre season at Parma after being tipped for greatness These are just the guys who missed out on the team.
A lot of the players who actually made the Ghana squad are also among the ranks of highly-touted young players whose careers have stalled. Isaac Vorsah and Jon Mensah looked like they had the potential to make up the best central defense partnership in African football for a decade back when they were teenagers. Vorsah is now 24, Mensah is 22, and they haven't improved. They're merely solid, yet flawed players. Vorsah never developed the composure required to play in the center of defense at the highest level, while Mensah has struggled to hold down a regular spot in Evian's starting XI.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Ghana does still have a lot of very good players, and that most of them are young enough that they'll be factors heading into this World Cup and the next two editions of the Africa Cup of Nations. Their three-man midfield of Badu, Anthony Annan and Kwadwo Asamoah is only matched by the Ivory Coast. Asamoah might be the best player in this tournament not named Yaya Toure. Christian Atsu is an emerging star on the wing. Mohammed Rabiu can play just about any position on the pitch. Asamoah Gyan isn't getting top-notch experience playing in the United Arab Emirates, but he's scoring goals at an absolutely absurd clip and staying healthy. There's plenty to like about Ghana.
The Black Stars are also playing very well at the moment. They made Egypt look bad in a comfortable 3-0 victory in which they rested their attacking and defensive starters, then beat Tunisia 4-2 in their two warm-up friendlies for the tournament. 19-year-old Richmond Boakye, whose goals are helping fire Sassuolo to Serie A, has looked sharp in those friendlies. Wakaso Mubarak looks like a tricky and dangerous winger. Even without the Ayew brothers available, Ghana has plenty of attacking options.
Adam Kwarasey is quickly becoming one of the best goalkeepers in Africa, and should bail Ghana out of some tricky situations. But their defense is a massive question mark, and Black Stars supporters will be hoping he's not called into action too much. Kwarasey, along with Ghana's midfield and attack give them a chance to win the tournament even without a solid back line, but Ghana could still crumble if their defense struggles. Jerry Akaminko has recently come into the fold and could unseat the current starting defenders after establishing himself with Turkish Super Lig side Eskişehirspor and putting in a good performance against Egypt. If he replaces -- and becomes more reliable -- than Vorsah, Ghana will be a much more formidable side. John Boye has also played some games at center back, as well as left back, and might join Akaminko in unseating the old guard (which is made up of players way too young for me to use that term without getting sad).
Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3)
GK Adam Kwarasey, LB Harrison Afful, CB John Boye, CB Jerry Akaminko, RB John Pantsil, CM Emmanuel Badu, CM Anthony Annan, CM Kwadwo Asamoah, LW Christian Atsu, ST Asamoah Gyan, RW Wakaso Mubarak
Kwadwo Asamoah: At various points in his career, he's played as a defensive midfielder, box-to-box midfielder, attacking midfielder, left winger and left back. He's not just one of the most versatile players in the Ghana setup, but one of the most versatile players in the world. He'll be asked to do plenty of tracking back, while also providing the primary central creative outlet for his team and having a shot once in a while. He has the ability to take over games at this level, and Ghana might need him to do it a couple of times to win the title.
Runners-up: It's tough to predict what's going to happen to Ghana, mostly because their group is brutal. They could conceivably finish third in Group B without even being that poor. They could also run into Zambia in the knockout stages, who present a tough matchup for them (as we saw last year in this tournament), or South Africa, who will have the home crowd behind them. The most likely scenario is that they make their way to the final, only to be beaten by a superior Ivory Coast side, but anything is possible for the Black Stars, including an early exit or lifting the cup.