Could Asante Kotoko, on Wednesday, best Al Hilal to reach the group stage of the CAF Champions League for the first time in 15 years?
The answer — that which a Ghanaian journalist like myself is almost obliged to provide, even if only to boost public confidence, at the risk of appearing irrational when weighed against objectivity and overwhelming odds — is yes.
Reality, of course, suggests otherwise. Kotoko, you’d recall, lost 1-0 to the Sudanese giants in the first leg at the Accra Sports Stadium about a fortnight ago, and there is no doubt that Hilal, on their own turf, are now firm favourites to advance to the next stage.
But, unrealistic as it might seem, don’t rule Kotoko out just yet. The Porcupine Warriors can turn in a creditable — and, perhaps, ultimately triumphant — display in Sudan to edge past Hilal, should interim head coach Johnson Smith and his technical crew apply the right formula.
And that would have to involve Naby Keita, a man who — for this game, at least — could hold the key to Kotoko’s continental progress. The Guinean, following his October 2018 arrival at Kotoko during the tenure of Charles Akonnor (now Ghana trainer), quickly found his feet and made a noticeable, instant impact.
His match-winning performance against Accra Hearts of Oak, around this time last year in the truncated Ghana Premier League season, was a great portrayal of his abilities going forward, in terms of passing, movement, accuracy, and precision.
These days, though, Keita struggles to lock down a position, regularly finding himself in and out of the team. That isn’t exactly a bad thing, with all the talent bubbling away next to him, but Keita brings a sense of elegance and panache to the Kotoko attack that Smith’s other alternatives don’t.
Kotoko possess enough counter-attacking threat to hurt Hilal, and having Keita in that offensive setup would only sharpen their edge. Playing alongside Kwame Opoku — the closest to a reliable scorer the team has had in a season of far too few goals — the 26-year-old would give Kotoko the best shot at success.
Up against phenomenal Hilal defender Faris Abdullah, Opoku hardly stands a chance. But should Keita be unleashed — from the start, ideally — with the sole brief of occupying Abdullah, Opoku would be left to play off the other, less formidable centre-back (likely Ahmed Wadah).
And if Opoku, thus freed, could scythe through to do some damage… well, the unlikely might not seem so impossible after all.