Greg Lalas
Thursday January 31st, 2008

ACCRA, Ghana -- Within minutes of hearing news that Nigeria had beaten Benin 2-0 and would be Ghana's opponent, my friend Alex uttered what every Ghanaian was probably thinking:

"Did a sleeping giant just awaken?"

Immediately, the Ghanaians shrugged off this thought. No way, they assured themselves. We'll take them in Sunday's quarterfinal showdown. After all, Nigeria beat Benin, not Brazil. And if you really break down the Super Eagles, they're vulnerable everywhere.

Yes, Jon Obi Mikel looks spry and inventive, but he's just 20. Yes, Yakubu Aiyegbeni finally scored, but if he played for his club like he's currently playing for his country, Everton coach David Moyes would ship him off to the Hungarian third division faster than you can say "goulash."

Yes, Obafemi Martins is supremely talented, but he's so off-target these days, ball boys immediately take cover whenever he shoots. Yes, the defense posted a shutout against Benin, but a back line built around Danny Shittu doesn't instill fear in anyone.

Furthermore, the Black Stars are sparkling so brightly right now it doesn't matter what kind of form Nigeria is in. As one front-page headline said on Wednesday: "Nigeria Next to Lose to Ghana."

"Well, one swallow doesn't make a summer," BBC radio commentator Richard Fleming told me. "Nigeria's [loss to the Ivory Coast] wasn't representative of what they can do. They had no unity for two and a half games. A total lack of understanding on the pitch. But after they beat Benin and learned that Mali had lost, they had a massive celebration. You'd have thought they'd won the tournament. Their confidence, their attitude, their mood have changed dramatically."

In other words, yes, a sleeping giant has just awoken.

Fleming is covering his fourth African Cup of Nations, and he called all three of Nigeria's Group B matches in Sekondi. He's watched Nigeria's players take a licking from the media and their fans almost since the day they arrived in Ghana.

In many ways, it was deserved. In the opener against the Ivory Coast, the Super Eagles had no solution for unlocking the Elephants' sound defense, and no Plan B when Plan A proved futile. The second match, against Mali, was a similar situation, with the big names failing to conjure up any sort of coherent play.

The coach, German Berti Vogts, was sharply criticized for not understanding African soccer and failing to find a winning chemistry out of the talented players at his disposal. He insisted on combining Yakubu and Martins up top, despite the plainly evident reality that they are too similar to play together.

Finally, against Benin, Vogts benched Martins. Behold, his replacement, Ikechukwu Uche, was pacy and inventive. And that opened things up for the midfield as Mikel had the space and freedom to operate in.

When the final whistle blew, Vogts didn't celebrate. He walked down the tunnel, his face expressionless, his demeanor that of a man who got the job done. Damn the critics.

"Nigeria are galvanized now," Fleming said. "They've banned the media. There's talk of them being angry at the federation. They have this 'us against the world' mentality now."

There is a long history between Ghana and Nigeria, the two largest English-speaking nations in West Africa. In 1957, the Black Stars beat the Super Eagles 7-0, the worst defeat in Nigerian history. Ghanaians still torment their archrivals by saying they scored a goal for every letter in the "Nigeria."

More recently, Nigeria beat Ghana 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the '02 Nations Cup in Mali, and by the same score in the group stages of the '06 edition in Egypt, thanks to an 85th-minute goal from Taye Taiwo. Last year, Ghana thrashed Nigeria 4-1 in a friendly in London.

"It's a rivalry that is, well, unrivaled in the Nations Cup," Fleming explained. "This time, the pressure is on Ghana, who are playing at home. And really, have Ghana been pushed yet? From now until Sunday, you know the hype is going to build. The Ghanaians are confident now, but that Jiminy Cricket will appear on the Ghanaians' shoulders, saying, 'Wait a minute, Nigeria's not the easy proposition we thought it was.' Maybe Nigeria can exploit that. Maybe they'll be unshackled and play a freer game."

The most anticipated matchup is the midfield duel between Chelsea teammates Mikel and Ghana's Michael Essien. Essien, five years older than Mikel, is certainly a better player at this point, but he's under intense pressure to lead the Black Stars to the Cup. Mikel, on the other hand, is unhindered by any such weight. If he plays like he did against Benin, Ghana won't control the midfield as easily as it did in its three group games.

"You just feel," Fleming concluded, "that the Nigerian players would love to go into Ghana's backyard and stick it up them."

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