Pulsating stalement: Hearts hold champions Kotoko in Kumasi
It was the hundredth, and it had to be special. The momentousness of the occasion was always going to spark up the adrenalin. And it did. The fans felt it, and more importantly, the players on the pitch too.
This was a game that ended without a goal, but the score line was nothing like the boredom it suggested.
Hearts of Oak came into this one motivated to bag a very important bragging right: prior to the clash, out of the numerous times they had faced off with their arch rivals Asante Kotoko in Kumasi, they had both chalked 17 wins apiece. A win would equip Hearts with the right to boast about ‘owning’ Kumasi, and the prospect of it was tempting. It was exciting.
It was therefore not surprising how they came out of the blocks all guns blazing, covering every inch of space and chasing down the ball with unrelenting aggressiveness. When they had the ball, they passed really well too. All season, they had largely struggled in possession and looked unimaginative. But not on this occasion; not this time. They looked different. They looked possessed.
Kotoko on the other hand looked taken aback, and it took them a while to warm themselves into the game. When they did, they looked sharp and threatening too. Perhaps their biggest chance fell to striker Abdul Aziz Yusif, who mistimed a volley from close range, the ball flying upwards and his teammates watched, cursing passionately. Every chance mattered in such a clash, and they knew it would take a lot to get another.
On the other end, Hearts had by far the biggest chance of the first half. Waltzing his way into the box with his trademark pace and nimble footedness, winger Ashittey Ollenu found himself deep in the Kotoko box and cut the ball backwards, but the pace on it was too strong, and the ball was too high too. Striker Selasi Adjei, who got on the end of it, wasn’t quick enough to make an ideal connection with the ball: he mistimed and mishit it, in what looked like a split second moment, with the ball coming of his knee as he swung his leg furiously. Hearts fans moaned as the ball went wide of the post.
As the half drew to a close, the blazing Kumasi sun suddenly gave way to thick clouds. The heavens opened, the rains pouring as both sets of players hungrily went at each other, boot for boot, tackle for tackle, in typical super clash style. Heart’s Robin Gnagne got injured amid the raw physicality of it all, and was stretchered off.
Play opened up considerably on the rain-soaked pitch in the second half, with Kotoko – perhaps suddenly realizing the pressure to make the home advantage count – gaining control of the game. They poured forward and went at Hearts in their numbers, restricting the Phobians to their own half. But it was a risky way to play.
They almost paid the price for this all-out attitude, almost conceding from a quick Hearts break. A long ball was played behind Kotoko’s highline, and goalkeeper Joseph Addo raced from his goal, out of his box in an attempt to stop Hearts’ Selasi Adjei. In what was a noticeable moment of panic, he found himself 30 yards out, aiming a charge at the on rushing Adjei. Both of them clashed, with the ball falling to Emmanuel Hayford, who took two touches into the box and unleashed a shot. Fortunately for Kotoko, defender Abeiku Ainosoon was on the line to make sure that they were not punished, putting his foot in for a timely goal line clearance that went with a palpable sigh of relief around the Baba Yara.
Hearts, who were unlucky to lose Robin Gnagne’s replacement Philip Boampong to another injury, kept pushing. Boampong’s replacement, the young Gerald Odupong, almost silenced the Kotoko crowd when he got in behind their backline and hit a sweet shot with his left foot, but keeper Addo got a hand to it.
Kotoko’s Ivorian left back Ben Adama swung in a corner five minutes from time at the other end, and it caused problems, with Hearts defending only instinctively to avoid conceding in what was nerve-racking bit of six-yard-box madness.
At the blast of referee Cecil Fleischer’s whistle, Hearts’ players marched towards their fans at the Asokwa end of the stadium and applauded. There were emotional hugs and spirited pats amongst Kotoko players too, as they prepared to be furnished with their league medals and trophy in what has been a long, tiring season.
The scenes told the story of the game. Even through the numerous injuries and frequent stoppages, this game still managed to entertain. It still managed to reflect the true value that this derby stands for: commitment. The players stepped up to the plate, gallantly measuring up to the enormous responsibilities of this iconic clash, and they left the pitch with their heads held high.
Kotoko XI: Joseph Addo – Amos Frimpong, Abeiku Ainooson, Rahim Ayew, Jordan Opoku (Prince Baffoe), Michael Akuffo, Seidu Bancey, Richard Mpong, Ben Adama, Yakubu Issah, Abdul Aziz Yusif (Isaac Boakye)
Hearts XI : Tetteh Luggard – Fusseini Hamza, Kweku Andoh, Robin Gnagne [Philpi Boampong (Gerald Odupong)], Owusu Bempah, Nuru Sule, Ashittey Ollenu, Eric Kumi (Paul Acquah), Emmanuel Hayford, Emmanuel Laryea, Selasi Adjei
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