Ghana — respected eternal rival of the USMNT and leader in the nations' all-time World Cup series — has secured its place in Qatar, where the Black Stars will undoubtedly meet the Americans, after a heroic elimination of favored Nigeria in Abuja.
The Special Relationship began at the 2006 World Cup, continued in 2010 and reached a climax in 2014, but the greatest testament to the symbiotic relationship between the two countries is when the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 event, Ghana said "to hell with that, we're not going either" and promptly crashed out. But after watching the American's put one foot in Qatar with Sunday's 5-1 win over Panama, the Black Stars responded with a smash and grab against their West African rivals Nigeria.
Nigeria entered with a slight advantage after goalkeeper Francis Uzoho produced a fine first leg display in Ghana to keep things level at 0-0, and a capacity crowd of over 60,000 roared on the Super Eagles inside Moshood Abiola National Stadium.
But with the away goals rule in play, Ghana still possessed the wild card.
The Black Stars threw it down 10 minutes into the match when Thomas Partey connected on one from distance that flew straight at the feet of Uzoho. Instead of getting his body behind it, the keeper made a mess of everything.
Thomas Partey sneaks one under the keeper! Black Stars have a goal in Abuja
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 29, 2022
Nigeria now needed two goals, and in the 18th minute protests were made after Ademola Lookman went down in the box following a challenge from Ghana's Denis Odoi. In real time it looked like the former Fulham defender got the ball, but the VAR rightfully brought the ref to the monitor and it was clear that Odoi had actually stepped on Lookman's foot.
Captain William Troost-Ekong, a center back, made no mistake as Jojo Wollacott guessed the wrong way.
Penalty makes it 1-1! The Super Eagles are back in the fight pic.twitter.com/BNy9GKucHE— ESPN+ (@ESPNPlus) March 29, 2022
The importance of the quick equalizer was huge with the crowd transformed into a bouncing human mass. Ghana wanted the pressure to start mounting on Nigeria in its search for goals, but the pendulum had quickly swung against the Black Stars despite the Super Eagles still needing another goal.
A period of Nigeria pressure ended with Victor Osimhen putting the ball in the back of the net in the 34th minute, but he was clearly offside and replay eventually took it away. However, the unnecessary length of the review and few other stoppages meant the Super Eagles couldn't sustain that momentum through halftime.
Partey's shot represented Ghana's only effort of the opening 45, and it looked like the Black Stars were still banking on that being enough despite Troost-Ekong's penalty and the growing Nigeria threat.
We also had an impressive contest between the teams over who could maintain the longer huddle before returning to the dressing rooms for halftime. The Super Eagles won that battle, but they couldn't win the war.
In the second half, Partey was all-action in midfield while the central defensive pairing of Strasbourg's Alexander Djiku and Leicester's Daniel Amartey repelled every Nigerian cross into the area. Every passing minute, rather than rousing more effort and attacking desperation, seemed to crush Nigeria's spirit that much more.
By the time Moses Simon's free kick from a dangerous area fluttered harmlessly over, you knew it was over for Nigeria and manager Augustine Eguavoen. The Super Eagles hadn't failed to qualify for a World Cup since 2006 — and they were damn close to advancing to the last-16 and eliminating Argentina in 2018 — so it's a cruel step backwards, but also an incredibly disappointing evening on the pitch. They did not play well.
GHANA QUALIFY FOR THE WORLD CUPNIGERIA HAVE BEEN ELIMINATED
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 29, 2022
It's a brilliant turnaround for Ghana after an embarrassing Africa Cup of Nations elimination to Comoros. Serbian manager Milovan Rajevac was promptly fired and replaced by 46-year-old interim coach Otto Addo, who played for Borussia Dortmund and represented the Black Stars 15 times, ahead of the two-legged playoff against Nigeria.
Almost half the AFCON squad was left out of the playoff roster while André Ayew was suspended for his red card in that Comoros humiliation, so Ghana approaches the World Cup with a fresh new outlook and a raging desire to avenge John Brooks' late downward header.