Ghana's rock Mensah must overcome back problem

ACCRA (Reuters) - John Mensah's towering presence and impenetrable defending have led to the Ghana center back being nicknamed "Rock of Gibraltar."

Although there would seem to be little in common between the British-ruled territory on the Spanish coast and the west African country, it is a label that has stuck on the 27-year-old since he made his international debut in 2002.

Despite the image of a sturdy defensive bastion, Mensah has battled with a brittle back over the last two seasons and found his playing time limited by a list of different muscle injuries that stem from the problem.

It was the reason that he missed the recent African Nations Cup finals in Angola and a significant number of games for Sunderland, who have him on loan from French club Olympique Lyon and have spoken of their desire to soon sign him to a permanent deal.

Mensah comes from a talented group of Ghanaian players who used the opportunity of the stage provided by the 2001 World Youth Championship in Argentina to earn contracts with clubs in Europe.

He went to Italy with Bologna but, unlike contemporaries Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, it took him several years to convince the Italians of his real potential.

He spent five years playing mainly in Serie B on loan deals before his career suddenly took off with a move to France at the start of 2006.

At Stade Rennes, he quickly caught the eye at a club with a well-deserved reputation for finding promising talent, polishing it up and selling it on. A season-and-a-half with Rennes led to Mensah being linked with possible moves to Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Borussia Dortmund.

Instead, on the advice of his compatriot Michael Essien, Mensah moved to Lyon in July 2008 in a deal worth some 8.4 million euro.

Earlier the same year he had led Ghana on home soil when they hosted the Nations Cup finals, standing in as captain for the injured Appiah.

"When Appiah was injured it was evident to even Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari that John was the natural leader," Ghana's coach at the time Claude LeRoy said.

"He didn't talk much but when he did it was effective and coherent. He had a magnetic effect on the players."

However, Mensah got a red card in the quarter-final against Nigeria, picking up a one-match ban in the process, and his absence played a major role in the hosts' semi-final loss to Cameroon.

(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Johannesburg; Editing by Clare Fallon)