The Nation's Derby: Can Kotoko brush off the trauma to revive title hopes?
Asante Kotoko takes on bitter rivals Accra Hearts of Oak this Sunday in the second leg of their Premier League encounter. The match will be the Kumasi-based side’s first competitive game since their team bus was involved in a devastating accident on 12 July.
The tragic incident led to the postponement of this crucial game, initially scheduled for 16 July. The sad accident aside, Sunday's encounter will be nothing short of a usual Kotoko versus Hearts of Oak game, with all to play for at the top end of the table.
It will be third place against fourth, and this time the odds look evenly split between Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak going into Sunday's Premier League clash at the Kumasi Sports stadium.
A win for either side will keep them in the title race and close the gap on the top two teams, whilst a loss automatically erodes any title hopes.
Though the two teams are not the best in the Premier League at the moment, it has been a long time they went into a league match with just a point separating them. With just a point separating Kotoko, fans especially the neutrals, are relishing an opportunity to witness quality football in Kumasi this weekend.
But should either team really be confident of victory? The recent form of both teams suggest otherwise.
Perhaps, Kotoko's season did not begin the way they had wished for in the first round of the league, as it went eight games without a win and were beaten in the first leg of the encounter in March, this year by Hearts of Oak.
However, Kotoko who are hosting their rivals this Sunday has seen a change in their fortune in the second round, winning two of out of their last three matches in the division and losing the other; making them one of the most in-form teams in the league at present.
Out of the 22 matches played so far, Kotoko has picked up nine wins, eight draws and suffered five defeats putting the Kumasi-based side in fourth position with 35 points.
On the other hand, Accra Hearts of Oak grinded out some impressive results in the first round, including recording their first win against arch-rivals in eight years at the Accra Sports Stadium, which prompted their fans into believing that this was the season where they could end their eight-year league title drought.
However, things have got murkier in the second round for the capital-based team. Out of their last three games, Hearts of Oak has only managed a single win, with the two others ending in defeats.
When it comes to their performance from the 22 games played so far, Hearts of Oak has picked 10 wins, six draws and suffered six defeats. They are currently in third place, just a point ahead of their opponents on 36 points.
The two teams go into Sunday's game without much separating them. On goals scored, Hearts has found the net 30 times whilst Kotoko's 17 goals is the second lowest in the top-flight. However, the Porcupine Warriors possess the best defense in the league, having only conceded 13 goals, compared to Hearts' 23.
So what sort of derby should we expect and how will the accident impact the game?
Sunday's match represents one of the most important derbies in recent memory; a colossal clash that has far-reaching implications. Whoever comes out victorious would still believe they can have a say in the title race.
If there's one trend that can be taken out of the recent history of the Ghana derby, it is the fact that matches between the two teams usually have little to do with current form. Over the past few seasons, results have often been dependent on which team is hungrier and who can bring the best tactics to bare.
On the part of the home side, key players and potential game changers include Saddick Adams, Yakubu Mohammed, Baba Mahama and Amos Frimpong, whilst the away team also boosts the likes of Winful Cobbinah, Thomas Abbey, and Vincent Atinga.
Going by what has been seen so far, Kotoko's current forms gives them a slight edge over their rivals, who have struggled in the second round of the season.
However, the accident and its impact on the match fitness of the Kotoko players, will definitely give the Phobians some encouragement to go all out for maximum points.
All that said, the two coaches may decide to deploy different tactics on the day as games between these two have often defied the prediction of bookmakers.
Kotoko's Head Coach Steve Polack, since taking charge some few months ago, has demonstrated good tactical knowledge and has been able to turnaround the fortunes of the club from being a mid-table position to a potential title contender after seven games in charge. A good result on Sunday could turn Fabulous Kumasi Kotoko into surprise title contenders, going into the final seven matches of the season.
On the opposite side is Frank Nuttall, Hearts of Oak's coach, who was able to find a winning formula for his side towards the end of the first half of the season as his team ended the first round as one of the best.
However, that winning formula seems to go missing in the second half of the season. The team has lost very vital points at home and away including that 5:0 hammering by WAFA at Sogakope last month.
Anything worse than a draw will all but end Nuttall's hopes of guiding Hearts to end their eight-year trophy-less run in the domestic league.
The two might not be the best teams presently in the league but what is certain is that matches between these teams are never short of excitement. Finishing above each other will be enough motivation and compensation for two of the country's most successful clubs to go all out to appease their supporters.
Odds may favour Kotoko despite the tragic incident, but one cannot deny the fact that this game is probably the most balanced tie in the last few years.