“Oh, but it’s only the first game, right?”
If you walked the streets of Kumasi last Sunday, after Asante Kotoko lost away to Al-Hilal of Sudan in their first 2018/19 Caf Confederation Cup group assignment, you probably heard lots of that. Days later, the chorus reverberates.
Not that this is an altogether faulty viewpoint. Aside being optimistic, at least on the face of it, there is a ring of truth to that claim: Kotoko are on a six-game itinerary, after all, hence there’s so much activity to look forward to. But all that sparkling positivity, perhaps inspired by the club’s hierarchy in a press release, masks the real fact: that Kotoko actually have just a game — against early Group C leaders ZESCO United – to save their mission.
That showdown is only a week away, and while it helps that the match would be honored in front of Kotoko’s own supporters, there are absolutely no guarantees. See, here’s some perspective; a summary of how qualification in such situations is usually secured: win all home games, and supplement those nine points with as many as can be nicked on the road.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
No doubt, Kotoko — from many a continental campaign, successful or otherwise — appreciate this. Twice African champions and losing finalists on seven more occasions, they’re keenly aware of the stakes. And that’s why talk of the team being under little — or no — pressure is really not in Kotoko’s favour. Oh, there is pressure alright, and Charles Akonnor’s lads — the vast majority of whom have never been up against odds so high — need to feel it. All of it.
There’s really no hiding place — not before 62,000 hostile fans in Omdurman and certainly not in the presence of an expectant home crowd. ZESCO won’t be easy — there’s no overstating that — and even a Baba Yara Stadium as full as it’s been for Kotoko’s last few inter-club fixtures wouldn’t lighten the task. Indeed, if there’s anything the narrow defeat in Sudan taught the Porcupine Warriors, it is the importance of not missing the fine details; that every moment in every game matters.
When the Zambians come to town next Wednesday, the intensity would go up a notch, but the players are fortunate to have — in Akonnor — a coach willing to wrap them up in cotton wool, even if that means taking the heat himself.
“No one should put pressure on the players; it will only cost the team,” the former Ghana captain pleaded on radio after Kotoko’s return.
“We will win but don’t put pressure on them — the pressure should be directed to me.”
Okay, C.K; we hear. The pressure is all yours, as you wish. And you’d better focus on getting the most out of the players currently at your disposal rather than be distracted by the pursuit of other targets. The midfield is solid, but the attack and defence do need some work — and that’s wholly on you.
Beating ZESCO wouldn’t mean Kotoko’s agenda can’t go wrong at some other point, of course, while the club can still squeeze a miracle should the February 13 date not pan out as hoped. A win, though, would be the surest way to get Kotoko off the mark before the job gets harder, even impossible.
They have just one shot; miss it, and that’s practically game-over for Kotoko. The chorus in Kumasi, if the city does speak at all in the aftermath of such disappointment, would be very, very different.