In the end, they made it look easy.
Ghanaâ€”one of the favourites heading into the 2013Â Africa Cup of Nationsâ€”beat Niger 3-0 in Port Elizabeth on Monday and in so doing finished right where they were supposed to: atop Group B with an unbeaten record from three matches.
The Black Stars will now face Cinderella story Cape Verde in Eastern Cape city on Saturday while Niger, who failed to score a goal at the competition, will leave South Africa once again having failed to progress from their bracket at the Cup of Nations.
Mali drew Congo DR 1-1 in Durban in Mondayâ€™s other match and will face tournament host South Africa on Saturday in Durban.
So what can we take from Ghanaâ€™s win? Well, that the pre-AFCON hype wasnâ€™t misplaced, for starters. And Niger? Theyâ€™ll surely be disappointed with their showing, which was sturdy for the most part but lacking in finish.
Following are the major talking points from Mondayâ€™s match at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Ghana Loves Port Elizabeth
When the Black Stars became the only African side to progress to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa they were adopted by the host country as a sort of â€œhomeâ€ side.
That affection has manifested itself in Port Elizabeth during this Cup of Nations, where Ghana has so far played each of its three matches.
They have a good contingent of traveling supporters in the city, and the locals seem to have picked up right where they left off in 2010 as well.
No doubt Ghana will be more than happy to stay in the city for a fourth match in succession. Theyâ€™ll face Cape Verde here in Saturdayâ€™s quarter-final match.
Niger Isnâ€™t Quite There Yet
In football terms, the Nigerienne Football Federation is relatively young. Established in 1967 (seven years after Niger won independence from France) its national team took 45 years to qualify for a major tournamentâ€”the 2012 Africa Cup of Nationsâ€”and once they got there lost all three matches and departed Gabon and Equatorial Guinea without a point.
In that regard, their showing in South Africa this month was a step forward. They did well to hold favoured Mali to a 1-0 victory on the opening day of Group B play and in their second match picked up their first ever Cup of Nations point after a scoreless draw with Congo DR.
Manager Gernot Rohrâ€™s side was well-organized and difficult to break down over the balance of the competition, but after Christian Atsu scored Ghanaâ€™s second on Monday they never really looked like coming back.
Niger will likely be a regular Cup of Nations participant in years to come, but theyâ€™re not quite ready for success just yet.
Christian Atsu Has Great Potential
Christian Atsu came into this Cup of Nations as one of the young players to keep an eye on, and he has blossomed under our watch in South Africa.
The Porto winger, 21, combined superbly with Black Stars strikerAsamoah GyanÂ on Monday and scored Ghanaâ€™s second goal after controlling Gyanâ€™s cross, evading a challenge and finishing with a half-volley past goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda.
Atsu did well while on loan at Rio Ave last season but has yet to really make a meaningful impact for Porto. But judging from his performance in South Africa, that wonâ€™t be too long in coming.
Gyanâ€™s Still Got It
Asamoah Gyan hasnâ€™t exactly been on the radar since departing Sunderland for Al Ain in 2011. But he has been scoring for fun in the United Arab Emirates (43 goals in 31 league matches) and last season helped the side to a 10th Pro-League title.
Itâ€™s a vein of form he seems to have carried into the Africa Cup of Nations, where he has been improving by the match.
On Monday Gyan, 27, opened the scoring against Niger after just six minutes when he smashed the ball past Daouda after latching onto Bristol City midfielder Albert Adomahâ€™s cross from the right.
In the 23rd minute his patience allowed Atsu to run into space at the far post, and his chipped cross found his teammates perfectly for Ghanaâ€™s second goal.
Gyan was always going to have to deliver if Ghana was to experience success in South Africa, and he has done it so far.
Ghana Is Every Bit a Contender
Itâ€™s been 31 years since Ghana last won the Africa Cup of Nationsâ€”an unacceptably long time given the profile of Ghanaian football in Africa and the type of players the national team can regularly call on.
Itâ€™s also a barren spell that may not see another month. The Black Stars have been improving with every game, with every half, at this tournament and (no disrespect intended to Cape Verde) should have little trouble progressing to the final four in South Africa.
From the back, where Isaac Vorsah and John Boye have established an effective partnership in the centre of defense, to the midfield, where Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu has organized the build-up while Christian Atsu and Kwadwo Asamoah attacked from out wide, to the attack, where Asamoah Gyan has starred, this Ghana side is poised for success at this Cup of Nations.
Of course, it doesnâ€™t hurt that manager Kwesi Appiah is well-liked by his players and has put forward a system they have all bought into.