- Hearts of Oak are champions of the Ghana Premier League first time in 12 years
- They represent Ghana in this season’s Caf Champions League
- Whiles they have a good team to make meaningful impact in the African competition (at least reach group stages), four players will be very key
The Ghana Premier League season has completed in July with Hearts of Oak making a strong signal to lift the ultimate first time in 12 years after beating Asante Kotoko in title decider during the second round to go three points clear from the usual superior goal difference lead.
It was a tough clash between Hearts and Kotoko back in June but the champions came on top after Afriyie Barnieh’s second half strike sank Kotoko at the Accra Sports Stadium.
By the victory, Hearts of Oak broke into a Ghana Premier League commanding lead before avoiding defeats against Liberty Professional and Ebusua Dwarfs to win the domestic title though they were beaten by West African Football Academy in last day fixture.
With Hearts clinching the Ghana Premier League title, they qualify straight for the Caf Champions League which begins next weekend for the Phobians who face Club Industriel Kamsar in one-legged game at the Accra Sports Stadium due to political instability influence in Guinea.
Many questions have been asked about Hearts’ entry into the African club premier football, and one of them probes around whether the former Champions League winners have the guts to explore the competition- at least reach the group stages.
Key areas that fingers have been pointed at are the technical staff and the playing body. The Premier League champions boosted their managerial bench along the line after announcing the transfer of Samuel Boadu from Medeama SC in March 2021.
The Ghanaian International has gained full understanding of his job at Hearts, guiding them to their first Ghana Premier League trophy since 2008-2009 season. Despite Boadu’s guided-resurgence of Hearts, their boss still fall behind African Inter Club football standard which this calls for reinforcement in Hearts’ coaching role before or in course of the African campaign.
In their most difficult game of the season, Hearts played nice football against Asante Kotoko which fans were much appreciative though but Mariano Barreto instilled a strategic game plan purported for away goalless draw to keep the race for the Ghana Premier League title to its last breath. However, Hearts finally won the clash.
At Barreto’s build-a-wall-in-midfield-and-keep-eyes-on-every-movement-of-strikers game plan, Boadu’s men were made fond of their possessive play and at their own half of the pitch which made Kotoko relaxed for longer time as if there was nothing fighting for.
Kotoko conceding late in phase of Hearts fiercely dominating the game was the overall manifestation of Barreto’s game plan which worked well for the Porcupine Warriors.
For those football fans who blasted Kotoko for allowing Hearts of Oak to dominate that was because the Kotoko players opted to their boss’ game plan for a goalless draw game at the Accra Sports Stadium.
While that highlighted a characteristic of a tactically purposeful coach (Barreto), it generates sense that Hearts may still need reinforcement in their coaching department if they want to overcome teams in the Champions League handled by coaches who are way above Mariano Barreto.
Thanks to their playing body that surged into Championdom in the second round of the season and against Kotoko even at the time things were difficult they managed to run away with slim 1-0 victory.
Hearts boasted of one of the best squad in the local scene together with Asante Kotoko, Medeama SC and Great Olympics. Their defense was the second to concede less number of goals in the Ghana Premier League (23) after Asante Kotoko who conceded the least goals (22).
The middle men with the likes of Benjamin Afutu, Emmanuel Nettey, Abdul Manaf, Ansah Botchway, Salifu Ibrahim created the chances and the strikers buried them nicely making them the second highest scoring side of the season with 45 goals.
Hearts would need to maintain their recent Ghana Premier League form and add extra energy to make impact in the Caf Champions League. They have been out of the African elite club competition for a decade now.
Hearts’ entry into this season’s African Champions League came with extra need to bring in quality talent to progress beyond the qualifying stages. And while the Phobians has done exactly that after signing Enock Asubonteng from Wafa, Gladson Awako from Great Olympics, Salim Adams of New Edubiase, Kofi Kordzi, Suraj Seidu and Isaac Agyenim Boateng, they already have four players in their current squad who would fire them into at least group stages of the Caf Champions League.
Raddy Ovouka is one of them who will be instrumental in the African campaign emerging as one of the best left backs in African Major Leagues. The Congolese International had struggled in his initial years since joining Hearts in January 2018.
Despite when he struggled, Hearts kept faith and continue to give the 21-year old more minutes. This season in particular, there has been a turn-around in Ovouka’s performance pulling a string of impressive displays in the Ghana Premier League that earned him a call-ups in Congo’s Afcon qualifiers against Senegal and Guinea Bissau in March and that of FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Senegal and Namibia this September.
Ovouka was nominated for last season’s Congolese footballer of the year (2020) and has made a big surge into arguably the best left-back in the Ghanaian top flight.
He is currently playing at the African Champions League standard that makes the defender one of the players Hearts fans can rest hopes in the African campaign starting against Club Industriel Kamsar this Sunday.
The Congolese International can be compared (not in terms of experience but of form and confidence) to Al Ahly’s Ali Maaloul who has been a consistent left-back over the last five seasons in Africa.
Ovouka’s strength on the ball, physique, nimble-footedness (great quality of a modern-day left back) and crosses can be one of Hearts’ main sources of goals in the Caf Champions League.
And together with Benjamin Afutu who can also be vital source of goals for Samuel Boadu’s men. It seems the Ghanaian International was unsung hero where he was rarely recognize in Hearts victories last season. Whether that is true or not, his characteristics both in attacking and defending senses are best suited for the Caf Champions League.
In squads of former winners of the African Champions League; Zamalek, Al Ahly, TP Mazembe, Esperance de Tunis, Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Casablanca, they have at least a man who destroys opponents’ plays, do many runs, and ever present in the middle which usually make difficult for opponents to operate them especially through the midfield.
Hearts of Oak have lacked these qualities in a player for several seasons and since Afutu joining the Phobians, he has beaten the likes of Samudeen Ibrahim, Aminu Alhassan, and Daniel Kodie to eventually becoming undroppable for the last two seasons.
In the past season, he was instrumental for Hearts in his defensive and box-to-box midfield roles, making the 25 year old one of the best midfielders in the Ghana Premier League so far. He is one reason Hearts of Oak has conceded few numbers of goals and his destructive plays, runs and energy level that have lost from the Phobians in reeent times can be good for them in the African Champions League.
He is a resemble of Al Ahly’s Aliou Dieng which if Hearts could add few touches (discipline- by not attracting many cards in Champions League games) to Afutu, Hearts will become a good travelers on the continent like Ahly, Esperance who boast of Ivorian Fousseny Coulibaly and Wydad Casablanca who heavily depend on Yahya Jabrane.
Afutu Kotey can also push Hearts of Oak in attacking sense. At the very crucial stages of the Caf Champions League, club’s usually win on slim margin and the most common form of goals are usually from set pieces particularly a penalty, free kick or corner.
Hearts already have a number of good penalty takers but rarely have the men to score from corner kicks with a direct powerful header. By far, Afutu appears the most effective man in the current Hearts setup to not only won aerial duels in midfield but also to score from corner kicks and crosses.
A typical of what is being said in this regard is when Hearts of Oak draw 1-1 with Ebusua Dwarfs in the league in Cape Coast. Afutu reacted the quickest in the air to struck with a technical header but unfortunately the ball hit the wood work. Similarly is in Hearts’ 3-0 semi-finals victory over Medeama SC in the FA Cup.
You can watch highlights of those games to agree with what has been said about the midfielder so far. He was the best technical header at goal in the Ghana league and he is compared with the North African players in Caf club competitions, which a player like Afutu’s importance in goal scoring sense usually don’t come anyhow or at any time of the game but at and in critical moments.
However, Hearts nearly lost the versatile midfielder after the expiration Ghanaian International’s contract at the end of the season. Afutu’s name has still been submitted and legible to play for the continental club masters. However, his choice in the first XI remains doubtful.
Afriyie Barnieh is another player Hearts of Oak can heavily depend as they begin their African campaign this weekend. The Ghanaian International had teamed up with co-forwards Victor Aidoo, Kwadwo Obeng Jr and Isaac Mensah to win the Ghana Premier League for Hearts.
Aidoo started the season well but he was preferred to Kwadwo Obeng Jr in later part of the season and the later shined on his time given but simply not in the absence of Afriyie Barnieh.
Obeng Jr. struck 10 times last term with only three direct assists from Barnieh however the later created space for Oebng Jr. to score the goals. With the same understanding, Obeng Jr. was better when he played along with Afriyie Barnieh up front.
Maybe that’s due to Barnieh’s mid-season resurgence as a result of national team call-ups where the 20-year old represented Ghana on International duties at the U-20 level in the course of the season.
Barnieh has gained a vast experience in continental football over the years when he helped the Black Satellite to lift the 2020 West African Football Union (WAFU) Zone B Championship in Benin after beating Burkina Faso 2-1 in final.
Throughout the tournament the Ghanaian International was integral member of the winning squad but unfortunately it was Burkina’s Kouame Botue that went home as the best player of the tournament and the top scorer.
To continue his football development was another triumph with the Black Satellite three months later in Mauritania after Ghana beat Uganda 2-0 to the African Youth Championship first time in 12 years.
Barnieh was the captain and scored all Ghana goals in the finals but it was his compatriot Abdul Fatawu Isshaku who collected the best player of the tournament accolade. It’s quite unfortunate Hearts missed out on Isshaku who joined Liverpool back in April.
Afriyie Barnierh who held trials with arch rivals Asante Kotoko at the beginning of last season before joining Hearts later was the only phobia player who tasted the U-17 and U-20 Africa experiences. With this amassed African exposure than any of his current Hearts teammates, the forward is one of the four players who Hearts can heavily depend on the Caf Champions League.
Not only three of Ovouka, Afutu and Barnierh are standout players predicted to fire the Ghana Premier League champions in Caf Champions League but Salifu Ibrahim is another man Hearts fans need to rest their high hopes on.
Ibrahim is just new in this Hearts of Oak setup having joined the champions early in the January transfer window from Eleven Wonders. The playmaker wasted no time to walk straight into the starting lineup and has been eventually touted as a Lionel-Messi-like.
He is that young in terms of age (21 years old) and exposure to continental football (who he had only played for Eleven Wonders in the Ghana Premier League). But he enters into the competition with impetuous vision and arguably, among other players who enter into the Caf Champions League, the best final third passer.
Critically examined qualities of the 21-year old make Futball Surgery Technical Study Group argue that he is currently the engine of Hearts of Oak. Once Salifu is off, Hearts of Oak struggle to keep themselves going.
He dribbles very well, provides with that transitional plays, through balls and sustains inter-positional plays that make a team to create more chances and score goals so easily.
There are only few players who possess these qualities at the time worldwide (think of PSG’s Lionel Messi and Ángel di María) and the only one at Hearts. It’s no surprise his football circle people call his “Di Maria”.
The likes of Emmanuel Nettey and Frederick Ansah Botchway can be something else in their own coin but is Salifu Ibrahim who sparks, get started and drives the new Premier League champions when the going gets tougher.
The Ghana “Di Maria” is destined to open closed defense in the Champions League and when a game is already opened, then the 21-year old can only make Hearts of Oak score more goals both home and away.