NAIROBI, Kenya- It’s been five weeks of pre-season and the 2018 Kenya Premier League (KPL) season proper is here with us.
Defending champions Gor Mahia FC sent a statement of intent by winning the KPL Super Cup last weekend after beating AFC Leopards 1-0. They are still a work in progress and could face stiff competition from Sofapaka FC, Posta Rangers FC and Kakamega Homeboyz for the title.
Newcomers Wazito FC and Vihiga United FC have been tipped to retain a spot in the top flight after last season’s debutants Nakumatt, Zoo FC and Kariobangi Sharks FC all avoided relegation.
SportPesa News presents an in-depth analysis of this weekend’s action and here are the nine things to look out for.
Eyes on Madoya
Zoo FC midfielder Mike Madoya was the subject of stick in January when he was named the 2017 Most Valuable Player (MVP) ahead of Gor Mahia’s Meddie Kagere. He swept the stage at the awards gala bagging four accolades to the chagrin of local football fans who took to social media to question the meritocracy of the awards.
Madoya, who will be playing his second season in the top flight this year, will have to prove his doubters wrong with convincing displays for his side this campaign since fans still feel cheated by his fast rise to stardom. A litmus test presents itself against Ulinzi Stars FC on Saturday in the full glare of cameras in what will be the first live match of the new season.
Fans will definitely pay more attention to Madoya and the burden of proof lies entirely with him. Should he fail to sparkle against the Soldiers, the talk of the MVP award curse may surface and this may impact negatively on his budding career.
Kerr to refresh Nakumatt memories
Dylan Kerr is keen on restoring Gor Mahia’s lost glory in the CAF Champions League this season yet defending the KPL title in his first full season in charge remains a priority. What a way to start the season than against Nakumatt, the team that he beat on his touchline debut in the league last July.
Beating them again in a span of three days set him on a five match winning streak and he remained unbeaten until mid-October in the process guiding Gor to a record 16TH title with four matches to spare. He seamlessly endeared himself to the K’Ogalo fans thanks to a positive start against Nakumatt.
He will hope to a similar start to life in the new campaign against the same opposition who now look weaker on paper after losing key players notably skipper Peter Nzuki, their top scorer last season Kepha Aswani, number one custodian Ezekiel Owade as well as top defenders Kennedy Onyango and Nicholas Mejja.
A convincing win against the retailers on Saturday will certainly hand Kerr’s charges a spring in their step ahead of their opening CAF CL match against Equatorial Guinea side Leones Vegetarianos next weekend.
Who will fill Masoud Juma’s void?
Losing your top scorer is certainly a big blow to any team in the world. That Kariobangi Sharks have been hit hard by Masoud Juma’s transfer to South African top-flight side Cape Town City FC is an open secret. In fact finding a like to like replacement to the 2017 Golden Boot winner has been William Muluya’s biggest headache in preseason.
Ebrimma Sanneh, who flopped last season, looks like Muluya’s best gamble in that position given his experience in the KPL. Having costed the club a fortune to land his signature from Ushuru FC last season, Sanneh will be under the spotlight this season following the exit of Juma.
While Sydney Simale and Eric Kapaito are promising forwards, Muluya will be cautious not to throw them into the deep end as soon as Round one. Sudi Stadium has been a good hunting ground for Sharks having picked three points last season to end their poor start. Juma was instrumental in the return leg as he notched a brace in the 4-1 win. The lanky Gambian has to step up to fill Juma’s void if Sharks have any hopes of improving on their third place finish.
Kakamega Homeboyz need to stamp authority
Kakamega Homeboyz emerged as the surprise package of the past campaign alongside debutants Kariobangi Sharks. Despite finishing fifth, they only missed out on a top four place by a point. They seemed to have run out of steam towards the end of the season picking only one win in the last five matches.
Their start was along the same theme having dropped ten points in their first five matches. Mike Mururi has a more formidable outfit this season after signing local household names notably James Situma, Allan Wanga and Noah Wafula. He has proven to be an astute tactician by guiding mid-table sides to top four finishes like he did in 2014 with Chemelil Sugar FC.
Homeboyz chairman Cleophas Shimanyula believes his side can challenge for the league title this season after receiving financial backing from the Kakamega County Government.
However they need to stamp their authority early on against smaller sides. As a statement of intent, they need to improve on their away record having won only thrice on the road last season. A win over Thika United FC on Sunday will show Muiruri means business.
Can Mulumba lead from the front?
The retirement of Wilson Oburu leaves a big void at Bandari FC ahead of their season opener against Sofapaka. Despite struggling with disciplinary issues, Oburu has proven to be a leader at the coastal side over the years. Felly Mulumba will take over the armband from Oburu in 2018 as the Dockers look to better their tenth-place finish last term.
The Congolese has his work cut out on Sunday as Batoto Ba Mungu begin their hunt for the league title that proved elusive last season. President Elly Kalekwa has already set his targets clear if his January signings are anything to go by. His coach Sam Ssimbwa is well aware that nothing short of the league title will be accepted.
Against Bandari he is expected to unleash his new attacking trio of Kevin Kimani, Stephen Waruru and Kepha Aswani. Add their top scorer in 2017, Umaru Kasumba, to the equation and that spells danger for Bandari who have a new back four and a goalkeeper in Farouk Shikhalo.
Mulumba needs to stand out as a leader in Ken Odhiambo’s youthful squad and his performance against his former employers will be an indicator of what to expect this season from the Dockers defensively. This tie might have come too soon for him to prove his pedigree as a leader on the pitch.
Apollo could haunt former employers
After parting ways with 14 senior players, Tusker FC embarked on a rebuilding process that has seen them change their transfer policy of signing big names. Assistant coach Francis Baraza helped the Brewers acquire little known players from mid table sides as they look to build a team for the future.
Apollo Otieno, an industrious midfielder who likes controlling the game from a deep position, could prove to be Tusker’s best buy if his displays in preseason is anything to go by. The youngster has impressed head coach Sam Timbe who has preferred him ahead of compatriot Hashim Sempala in the pivotal number 6 role.
If there is any team that knows how good Otieno is then it’s his former employer Chemelil. Tusker will be hoping for a good start to inspire confidence in their restructuring process and Otieno provide that if he stars against the Millers.
He is familiar with the terrain of the Chemelil Sugar Complex where the Brewers have always struggled and his input will definitely be key on Saturday.
Kimanzi’s away record set for Vihiga United test
Newcomers Vihiga will start life in the top tier with a tie against Mathare United FC who had to dig deep to escape relegation last season. The Slum Boys have looked decent in pre-season following the acquisition of Robert Mboya and Clifford Alwanga who have brought balance to the team.
Part of their struggles last season were fuelled by a dismal away record that saw them win only one match. Given his experience in the league, Kimanzi knows it’s vital to pick points on the road and he is certainly braced for a Vihiga United side that was flawless at home as they finished top of the National Super League (NSL) to secure promotion.
In fact they made their home advantage count in the season finale against Ushuru to edge them 1-0 and emerge champions. This is certainly a tricky fixture for Kimanzi who has always complained of poor officiating in Western Kenya.
A wake up call is in the offing for AFC Leopards
Disjointed is an understatement while describing AFC Leopards’ performance in the Super Cup against Gor last weekend. Robert Matano’s charges looked far from convincing clearly struggling to settle into a rhythm and barely caused Gor any trouble.
A chance to patch their display on Saturday against Posta Rangers FC could end in disappointment if Sammy Omollo’s boys turn up. Pamzo has gone about his pre-season training quietly in Nakuru where he has stepped up preparations for the new campaign. He has injected pace to his forward line and added experience to his midfield.
The pace and artistry of Danson Kago and John Nairuka on the flanks could expose the AFC Leopards back four which looked shaky in the Super Cup. In midfield, the experience of Osborne Monday, Peter Opiyo and Jerry Santos could prevail over Ingwe and Matano should be wary of the threat that this Posta side carries going forward.
While talk of boycotting training has been rampant in the den, Rangers have been training religiously in Nakuru warming up for this tie and their good preparations could be crowned with victory over AFC Leopards.
Can Wazito dine with the big boys?
When the fixture for the 2018 season rolled out, Wazito head coach Frank Ouna was certainly a relieved man. As he prepares to make his debut in the top-flight on Saturday, Ouna will have a fairly manageable opponent in the shape of Sony Sugar FC. Starting the season with a home match could be a reprieve for the debutantes but they have to get going from the onset.
Ouna was a busy man in pre-season following the departures of Dennis Gicheru, Anthony Gathu and Johnstone Omurwa who played a key role in their promotion last season. He has since replaced them with players who are hungry to revive their careers notably Kenneth Wendo, Moses Otieno, Ibrahim Mao, Edwin Mukolwe and Harun Nyakha.
That approach to transfer worked well for them in the NSL with the likes of Gathu, Augustine Ochieng’ and Mark Odhiambo rediscovering their form in the process guiding them to the KPL. It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work this season.
A winning start against Sony will place them in good stead of their next four matches against more formidable sides Kakamega Homeboyz, Bandari, AFC Leopards and Kariobangi Sharks.