Stars seeking clean start in World Cup qualifier against Cranes

Stars seeking clean start in World Cup qualifier against Cranes

Harambee Stars kickoff their Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Thursday against Uganda, with all eyes on Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee whose value of fifth return to the national team now finds a fresh real test.

When he was appointed last year replacing former coach Francis Kimanzi, Mulee was tasked to lead Kenya to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the 2022 edition set for Cameroon, a mission which failed.

Although the ever demanding Kenyan football fans could not fathom how Stars missed the opportunity to return to the continental fiesta as minnows Comoros joined seven-time champions to qualify, Mulee had a few points to explain the botched campaign.

Firstly, he came into the qualifiers midway, after Kimanzi had drawn Egypt and Togo away and home respectively. A benefit of doubt could thus be given that maybe he would have done better.

Secondly, Covid-19 complications especially with the lockdowns locally which forced suspension of football, according to Mulee, contributed to the poor show as he turned to local players for the matches.

Further, alleged weaponisation of Covid-19 against Stars in their away match against Comoros in Moroni where key players were claimed to have tested positive, also affected Stars as the coach submitted.

Whether the reasons are acceptable or not, the campaign is already in the past and now Mulee has a clean slate to write on in the Group E of the Qatar qualifiers, and wants a good start.

“We know what is ahead, we respect Uganda a lot and we know head-to-head they have an advantage over Kenya. But that is history, we also have an opportunity to start rewriting our own history and we will do everything possible to get a good result because we are at home,” Mulee said after the last training session on Wednesday ahead of the crucial tie.

His captain Michael Olunga who is also starting a fresh campaign as the skipper since taking over from Victor Wanyama also underlined the need to start on a winning note.

“It’s a 50-50 encounter, at the end of the day I believe like the coach (Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic) said it is going to be a matter of little details and concentration in the game. I believe the team that wants it more will carry the day, and we are prepared with every player knowing what lies ahead of us. We have to come here and play a beautiful game, we are at home, we have to collect maximum points,” Olunga said, in a tone of confidence while his face depicted a deep sense of responsibility.

Key details

Pundits say Kenya is in a fair group to advance to the last round of the qualifiers (Uganda, Rwanda and Mali), with only five tickets up for grabs in Africa.

With focus now in the group stage, and particularly on the opening match, former Kenyan international Dennis Oliech has urged Mulee and his troops to ensure they win all home matches.

“We have to win all matches at home. If we start off with a win against Uganda, it will create a good environment in the team psychologically in the rest of the matches. To be fair to Rwanda they are a good side but we are way ahead of them, we can beat them away. That would ease the campaign because we would only need at least another draw away and we good to go,” Oliech analysed in a past interview.

Critically, Mulee’s team selection will be one of the “details”  that will matter if he has to start off well.

While Zecso United’s Ian Otieno is expected to keep his place between the posts, Tusker FC captain Eugene Asike could be drafted in to partner KAA Gent’s Stanley Okumu at the centre-back roles.

AIK’s utility man Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma is primed to defend from the left while recently released Kariobangi Sharks defender Daniel Sakari is likely to start at the right-back.

Mulee is expected to consider Serbia based Richard Odada, Azam FC’s Kenneth Muguna, Bandari FC’s Hassan Abdalla and Sofapaka FC versatile midfielder Lawrence Juma to choose from for the midfield work.

It is obvious Olunga will lead the attack, with Masoud Juma partnering him if Mulee goe for two out-and-out strikers. However, the matrix could change if Eric Johanna starts in the midfield subordinating the Al-Duhail striker in goal-poaching mission.

Outcome of the qualifiers

Although Micho says Uganda is a team in transition giving Stars advantage over them, it is fair to say the coach who is making a return to the Cranes after leaving in 2019 knows the team in-out.

Although this will be the first major match for Cranes since the retirement of former captain Denis Onyango, midfielders Michael Azira and Hassan Wasswa Mawanda, Micho has experienced players he worked with before including skipper Emmanuel Arnold Okwi, Khalid Aucho, Isaac Muleme, Murushid Juuko, Joseph Benson Ochaya, Denis Iguma and Derrick Nsibambi.

Chippa United goalkeeper Isima Bin Watenga could start, with defenders Murushid Juuko, Iguma, Ochaya, Halid Lwaliwa covering him in the third quarter.

Aucho, Moses Waiswa, Bobosi Byaruhanga and Isaac Muleme are the fovourites to marshal the midfield with Yunus Sentamu or Patrick Kaddu joining Okwi in the attack.

Stars and Cranes have played 72 matches before, Uganda winning 32 while Kenya has won 22, the rest ending in draws.

Mali won the Group E opener on the road to Qatar on Wednesday, edging Rwanda 1-0 in Agadir – Morocco.

This reckoning time also matters a lot for the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) boss  Nick Mwendwa, whose second term score will be evaluated with the outcome of the qualifiers, among other indicators.

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