CAF Champions League: Asante Kotoko fighting to make Ghanaian club football relevant again

Asante Kotoko goalkeeper Felix Annan will be key for the Ghanaian club as they bid to progress past Tunisian giants Etoile du Sahel to the CAF Champions League group stage. Christian Thompson/BackpagePix

Asante Kotoko defeated Tunisian giants Etoile du Sahel 2-0 in the first leg of the teams' first round tie played in Kumasi earlier this month. Goals from Augustine Okrah and Richard Arthur have put the club in a position where they need only avoid a heavy defeat in the return game in Monastir on Sunday to become the first Ghanaian team to reach the group stage since Berekum Chelsea back in 2012.

Asante, known as the Porcupine Warriors, are two-time African champions -- 1970 and 1983 -- but they have not appeared in the group stage of the premier continental competition since 2006. Their possible return to the top table is crucial not only for their own prestige and development but also for Ghanaian football as a whole.

The country was hit with a major crisis in 2018 after the uncovering of a match-fixing scandal and endemic corruption. Domestic football ground to a halt after the Ghana FA was disbanded and FIFA stepped in by appointing a normalisation committee to get the game back up and running. Only this year was a truncated domestic league held, which saw Asante crowned 'interim' champions after defeating Karela FC in the final back in June.

If the Porcupine Warriors can push into the last 16 of the Champions League, it will be a great achievement, given their relative lack of competitive action, while providing a beacon of hope for domestic football in Ghana.

Yet Etoile are more than capable of turning this Ghanaian dream into a nightmare.

The Tunisian heavyweights found themselves in a similar position in the preliminary round after they lost 2-1 away to Guinea's Hafia FC, but the return leg saw ESS rack up a 7-1 victory to turn the tie emphatically in their favour.

Asante coach Kjetil Zachariassen has promised that his side will not look to defend their lead in North Africa, but play on the front foot.

"I always go into matches with the intention to win the match, that's our goal now, we want to go to Tunisia to win," he told Oyerepa FM, per Ghanasoccernet.

"We will try to win the match.There's no injury now apart from those sidelined before we started the competition like Maxwell Baakoh."

The key battle will feature Asante captain and goalkeeper Felix Annan and Etoile's Algerian striker Karim Aribi, who struck four of the seven goals in the big home win over Hafia in the previous round. Annan must not only be at his sharp shot-stopping best but also provide defensive organisation and leadership in what will surely be a hostile atmosphere at Stade Mustapha Ben Jannet.

"We know there is a tough task ahead of Tunisia," the goalkeeper told Modern Ghana.

"We will prepare and go and get a good result there.

"We believe we can make it and we will do our possible best to qualify.

"We are Kotoko and we play to suit our own style, we are going to work hard and make sure we make it."

CAF Champions League: Race for group stage berths concludes

Elsewhere in the premier continental competition, several teams will feel that they have one foot in the group stage: Egyptian giants Al Ahly are well placed at 2-0 up against Cano Sport, as are Wydad Casablanca ahead of hosting FC Nouadhibou, while USM Alger take a 4-1 lead to Kenya for their return game against Gor Mahia.

However, several big teams find themselves in some jeopardy and in need of a strong second-leg performance to ensure they find safe passage to the group stage.

DR Congo giants AS Vita and TP Mazembe will be banking on their strength at home in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, as they have 0-0 aggregate score lines ahead of second-leg games against ASC Kara of Togo and Madagascar's Fosa Juniors respectively.

Nigeria's final representatives in the competition, Enyimba International, face a tough test as they travel to Sudan for a clash against Al Hilal on Sunday. The first leg in Aba ended 0-0, leaving the People's Elephant without a lead for the second leg, but knowing that only they can now benefit from the away goals rule.

The giant under biggest threat of elimination is Egypt's Zamalek, who suffered a 2-1 loss away to Senegal's Generation Foot.

The White Knights must overturn the deficit in Cairo on Saturday or new coach Milutin Sredojevic could see his tenure at the club cut very short indeed.

Reigning African champions Esperance de Tunis progressed past Chad's Elect Sports 3-2 on aggregate having won the return ties 2-1 at Olympic Stadium in Rades on Friday night.

Mamelodi Sundowns also progressed on Friday, after drawing 1-1 with Cote d'Or having won the first leg 5-0.

The 16 aggregate winners advance into the group phase, while the 16 losers drop into the playoff round of the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup.