Hearts Win The Battle, But Kotoko Are Still In The War
Advantage Hearts, then.
The latest ‘Super Clash‘ went the way of most games between Accra Hearts of Oak and archrivals Asante Kotoko in recent memory: cagey, tense, and settled by the odd goal.
And what a goal this one was!
Daniel Afriyie Barnieh’s 66th-minute match-winner was the sort of action you’d have missed if you blinked for a second, but maybe it was just that — the striking suddenness of it all — that made it such a wonder.
Actually, it wasn’t just that.
It was also the technique, fired on the turn and with minimal back-lift, to redirect a Frederick Ansah Botchway ball — shot? Pass? — past goalkeeper Kwame Baah.
Oh, and the goal was quite well-celebrated, too.
The sheer volume of emotion Barnieh poured into jubilating could be explained, partly, by the history he has — or, perhaps more appropriately, never had — with the team he had just scored against (and partly by the fact that he had turned 20 only a day earlier).
Sometime in 2019, the story goes, Barnieh trialled at Kotoko but was rejected. Eventually, he secured a move from lower-tier football to Hearts, but only as part of a deal headlined by colleague Abdul Aziz Nurudeen (with whom Barnieh shared an agent).
Two years later, Nurudeen struggles to get into Hearts’ matchday squad, while Barnieh has established himself as an ‘undroppable’. He is especially valuable for his desire/ability to make a difference when it matters most, which is why many tipped him to deliver decisively against Kotoko.
He did so in some style — and in a manner that revealed just how much he has improved.
With Botchway’s kick heading his way, last year’s Barnieh might have taken a touch to cushion the ball, a touch just heavy enough to allow his marker, Habib Mohammed, to adjust and snuff out the chance.
Not the 2021 version of Barnieh: captain of Ghana’s U-20 Afcon-winning team, and transformed by the wand of Hearts head coach Samuel Boadu. One touch — quick, deft, strong — was enough to underline his growing reputation, serve cold revenge, and send Kotoko reeling.
The Porcupine Warriors couldn’t get much going upfront, lacking the sense of direction that a target-man — heard of a certain Kwame Opoku? — gets you. It wasn’t just end-product that Kotoko missed, though; service, too, wasn’t quite forthcoming.
Chief creator Fabio Gama put in a stop-start shift, but his Phobian equivalent, Salifu Ibrahim, with whom the Brazilian was expected to wrestle in setting this game alight, hardly got off the blocks himself; their post-match embrace felt rather consolatory for both.
Hearts’ win gives them a three-point lead — not absolutely comfortable, but certainly more breathing space than either side has had in recent weeks — and a head-to-head advantage that might just come in handy in the final analysis. Also, it stretched Hearts’ unbeaten run to nine games, and stopped Kotoko’s from extending to ten.
But this, won by Hearts, was just the battle; there is still a war raging, and Kotoko are very much in it.
This game came with a winner-takes-all tag that didn’t quite tell the whole story of what is left of the title race. For all the hype surrounding their latest meeting — and justifiably so — there are three matchdays to go before Hearts and Kotoko can draw any solid conclusions about their campaigns.
And each of those six remaining games — some against teams with everything to play for and just as much to lose — carries just as much weight; a fact that both teams, following the weekend’s whirlwind, would do well not to lose sight of.
For their own sakes, then, neither team should place too high a premium on Sunday’s outcome — i.e., Hearts shouldn’t be intoxicated by their win any more than Kotoko should be deflated by it — as they’re still separated by a wafer-thin margin.
The immediate vibes from both trainers, Samuel Boadu and Mariano Barreto, would suggest that such an awareness of what lies ahead does exist.
“Not yet,” Boadu replied, when tempted to declare his Hearts team winners of the league, while his opposite number promised Kotoko fans that his own team “will keep fighting”.
How well they communicate those messages to their respective squads — evident in how the next three weeks unfold — would be key in determining just how their showdown ultimately plays out.