ACCRA Hearts of Oak’s valiant attempt at performing one of the rarest feats in continental football was blown into smithereens at the Accra Sports Stadium on Saturday when they were held to a 1-1 draw.
The Rainbow boys had sworn to overturn a thumping 4-0 loss they suffered at the hands of Esperance in the first leg 1/8th stage of the CAF Confederation Cup in Tunis, three weeks back. Many doubted it, Hearts stuck to the vow – pointing confidently to the ‘Miracle of El-Wak’ 38 years ago.
In that singular magical accomplishment in the then African Clubs Championships in 1977, Hearts produced a spell-binding 20-minute display to thrash Mufelera Wanderers of Zambia 3-0, after losing the first leg in Lusaka 5-2, to qualify for the next stage.
It was a sweet combination of that old flame and the Phobians’ own ‘Never Say Die’ spirit that may have pulled a decent number of their all-chanting supporters to the stadium.
Another miracle in the offing? So it seemed. Expectation was high. After all, it was the same Tunisians they defeated back-to-back in 2000 to clinch their first continental silverware in the CAF Champions League.
That psychosomatic mood may have fired the Heacrts boys in the early moments of Saturday’s game as they played with verve and determination, and by the second minute, had fetched their first corner-kick. The stadium roared in approval, though it was wasted.
But that was the stirring start the home team badly needed. And, it may have come as welcome news when Hearts registered the opening goal in the third minute, after Isaac Oduro’s luscious free-kick outside the box was clinically headed home by Isaac Mensah.
The response that greeted the goal was thunderous. With 87 minutes of regulation time left, Hearts fans began to believe for a moment that – maybe – just maybe, the miracle was possible.
But before those thoughts had any space to sink, Ghanaian international playing for Esperance, Harrison Afful – who was not feeling well coming into the game, scampered down the right flanks just a minute after falling behind, and pierced a powerful low shot across goal which Yacoubi Mohammed Ali poked past goalkeeper Soulama Abdoulaye.
The supposed equaliser was, however, ruled off-side and Hearts were let off the hook. A temporary sigh of relief was breathed. But the admonition was fully embossed on the mast.
As the minutes ticked by, the frustrated fans started checking on their watches. They wanted Hearts to dash for the jugular. They wanted the players to pour forward in bursts. But it was clear they had no play-maker to turn the tie on its head. It was obvious the boys were inexperienced and lacked the self-belief, quality and confidence to explode like their predecessors of 2000.
Instead, the more experienced and composed Esperance took charge and knocked the ball around with self-assurance – and would also frustrate Hearts with some delay tactics anytime they seemed to be under pressure.
Indeed, the arrow in Esperance’s quiver was to soak the pressure and catch Hearts on the break. It explained why they played only one man on top. It worked flawlessly well.
A minute after the half-hour mark, though, Hearts’ Togolese import, Foovi Aguidi, nearly doubled his side’s advantage with a thunderbolt drive from 27 metres which Esperance goalkeeper Cherifia Moez did well to push to corner – one of the many dead-balls for the home team that was squandered.
The second stanza began with the introduction of Hearts’ leading scorer Gilbert Fiamenyo, but he added little to the team’s forwardline – who now decided to shoot outside the box – but the style cut no ice.
Now beginning to sense that they had fallen off the wagon, the Hearts’ game took a slump and they looked like a side that would be happy to settle for a 1-0 win. However, Esperance had different ideas as they caught Hearts pants down with a swift counter which saw Nigerian import Samuel Eduoke setting up substitute Wassim Naghmuochi to fire at close range past Soulama for the equaliser.
Indeed, Hearts may have shown they have a diamond in the rough, but not the kind that can stop their Tunisian counterparts, who by Saturday’s upshot, have qualified into the money zone of the Confederation Cup campaign.
By John Vigah