FRANCEVILLE, Gabon – Ghana captain John Mensah scored before being sent off on Tuesday as the title contender surrendered its early superiority in a nervous 1-0 win over lowly Botswana at the African Cup of Nations.
Mensah forced the ball in from a corner in the 25th minute to cap a dominant first half for the four-time winners at a half-empty Stade de Franceville.
But Mensah was shown a straight red card in the 66th after dragging down Jerome Ramatlhakwane on the edge of the area, leaving Ghana to hold on in a game it was expected to win with ease.
Botswana had already threatened a stunning upset when only a desperate goal-line clearance from John Boye kept out Moemedi Moatlhaping’s header.
Mensah danced with joy after his first-half goal but later trudged off in despair when his last-ditch tackle left the 10 men of Ghana exposed, giving minnow Botswana a chance of drawing against the mighty Black Stars right up until the end.
“We didn’t come here to add numbers,” Botswana striker Ramatlhakwane said. “I think people will take us seriously now.”
Goran Stevanovic’s team eventually clung on — after also missing two good chances right at the end — but the celebrations at fulltime were of relief more than anything else.
Ghana’s array of talent didn’t hit top gear in the first half, although they were never stretched, and Mensah’s sending off after a poor header from Anthony Annan led to a shaky finish from Africa’s No. 2-ranked team.
“I think we were controlling the game for 70 minutes until the red card,” Stevanovic said. “It’s always very important to win the first game because you know there have already been surprises (at the African Cup).”
Even before the red card, Botswana had improved from a cagey start with Moatlhaping’s near-miss. Goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey also beat away a 79th-minute cross from Phenyo Mongala, as Botswana sensed a result that would have shaken up the African Cup even more than the surprise losses of Senegal and Morocco in their first games.
“We have learned that at this tournament it’s not easy to beat anybody,” Stevanovic said.
Earlier, small groups of fans dribbled into a roasting hot Stade de Franceville — a far cry from the pulsating atmosphere for the Group C opener in Gabon’s capital Libreville on Monday. The temperature had cooled dramatically by kickoff.
Stevanovic started with Asamoah Gyan with the striker having sufficiently recovered from a hamstring injury that had initially threatened his participation at the African Cup. The forward wore black strapping on his right thigh, however.
Botswana, meanwhile, was missing suspended midfielder and captain Dipsy Selolwane for its daunting debut at a major tournament.
Dominant at the start, Ghana barely gave the Botswanans a touch in the opening 10 minutes and camped for much of the first half in opposition territory.
With Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari calling the shots from midfield and Gyan and Andre and Jordan Ayew threatening with darting runs, the Black Stars pushed forward time and time again.
The constant pressure told in the 25th when Mensah turned a corner into the net after the ball had flashed past goalkeeper Modiri Marumo and defender Ofentse Nato. Botswana survived another corner in the 50th with Mensah again threatening.
But the underdog broke straight up field, and only Boye’s desperate overhead kick on the line kept Ghana’s slender lead intact.
Botswana’s defence then sent a long clearance downfield and Annan, who failed to spot Ramatlhakwane behind him, tried to guide a backward header to ‘keeper Kwarasey.
That let in the striker, and Mensah had to bring him down just short of the penalty area to prevent a likely goal and a huge shock.
Ghana: Adam Kwarasey, Asamoah Gyan, John Pantsil, John Mensah (sent off, 66), Anthony Annan, Samuel Inkoom, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu, Andre Ayew (Mohamed Abu, 88), Sulley Muntari (Jonathan Mensah, 72), Jordan Ayew (Masahudu Alhassan, 53), John Boye.
Botswana: Modiri Marumo, Ndiyapo Letsholathebe, Mosimanegape Ramohibidu, Mompati Thuma, Ofentse Nato, Phenyo Mongala, Jerome Ramatlhakwane, Moemedi Moatlhaping, Patrick Motsepe (Mogakolodi Ngele, 60), Mogogi Gabonamong, Tshepo Motlhabankwe.