KPL 2017: Can top guns keep hold of expanded league?
The delayed 2017 Kenyan Premier League (KPL) finally kicks off on Saturday with six games on the cards in the first round of the competition.
For the first time since time since the competition was re-branded KPL in 2007, 18 teams will feature after another acrimonious showdown between Football Kenya Federation and the league management company.
The afters are still being felt with the pending case at the Sports Dispute Tribunal (SDT) who will rule which of the teams between Muhoroni Youth FC, Sofapaka FC, Vihiga United and KCB FC will join the 16 already listed in the fixture programme.
Whilst every team in the expanded top flight has bolstered their squad the championship will be contested among the usual suspects, with no chance of a Leicester City-esque fairytale in the English Premier League last season.
Unlike 2016 and 15 when Tusker FC and before them record winners Gor Mahia FC ran away with the crown, competition is projected to be closer this term.
Here’s a look of the possible hits and misses of the 2017 KPL Season.
Stung by letting their crown go to arch-rivals Tusker FC in a season they ended trophy-less, the K’Ogalo Empire is out to strike back and stretch their record to 16 come November.
They laid a marker last weekend when they thoroughly outplayed Tusker to lift the KPL Super Cup in Nakuru where the 1-0 score line only told half of the story.
Having hired ex-Brazil international Jose Marcelo ‘Ze Maria’ Ferreira last term in a bid to make history by winning the fourth KPL title in a row, the wheels came off the K’Ogalo juggernaut as a blunt attack put paid to their ambitions.
In truth, many felt Gor lost the title as opposed to Tusker snatching it back from them with morale sapping draws costing them the title.
Before the deal turned sour, Ferreira had announced he was gunning for a season treble, which he has offered to fulfill in 2017.
“I have always said playing for Gor Mahia is a big responsibility. The club’s history, the fans and the leadership tells it all.
“Expectations are high especially from our fans and we can’t afford to fail them, as we request more of their support this season,” Ferreira told Citizen Digital just before the season curtain raiser KPL Supper Cup last Sunday.
Unlike the start of the 2016 season when Gor lost five key members of the 2015 invincibles, this season quality has been added to the playing unit with only Harambee Stars defender Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma exiting the first team, having moved to Georgia’s FC Kolkheti.
They had to do without meteoric Michael Olunga, Victor Ali Abondo, Meddie Kagere for half season and Khalid Aucho in the second leg besides coach Nutall and his assistants John ‘Bobby’ Ogolla and Frank Ouna.
Ferreira has managed to keep everyone who mattered last season and added CECAFA Kagame Cup winner (with Tanzania’s Azam) Rwandese Jean Baptisete Mugiraneza, KPL’s Most Valuable Player 2016 Kenneth Muguna, speedy winger John Ndirangu and younster Oliver Maloba.
Others are Joash Onyango, Philemon Otieno, Jeconia Uyoga, Peter Odhiambo, Mike Simiyu, Maqbul Mohammed and Shaban Odhoji.
Albeit posting mixed results in the high and low profile friendlies in the preseason, the playing unit has the potential to challenge for all domestic titles if all factors remain constant.
I concur with Ferreira, they have invested enough and he his footing fully at Gor.
Another big addition is assistant coach Zedkiah ‘Zico’ Otieno, a former coach and player who undoubtedly understands the club better than his Brazilian boss.
Anywhere he goes, Zico is known for building a formidable defense department which would be a big boost to K’Ogalo if it is instituted.
The only telling undoing for Gor will be striking force if Rwandese duo Jaques Tuyisenge and Meddie Kagere are unable to hit the net like last season. If the two strikers deliver, Gor could turn out to be red hot. It is time to reap abundantly, it is a highly promising season.
However, Ferreira e will not be forgiven by the K’Ogalo faithful if he won’t bring home a major title.
Many changes have taken place since 2016 at AFC Leopards ranging from the executive management to players. However, the presence of Coach Stewart Hall and his handpicked assistant Dennis Kitambi in the fray matters most.
He watched one of the weakest Ingwe sides in the last three matches of last season after taking over from care-taker coach Ezekiel Akwana, and promised to ‘wake up the sleeping giant’.
He meant business, and should indeed reflect in the performance of team once the league kicks off.
He cleaned up the entire defense line, save for Joshua Mawira formerly of Nairobi City Stars and Yakubu Ramadhan.
Among other new acquisitions, Mathare United’s duo Whyvonne Isuza and Robinson Kamura be instrumental in strengthening Leopard’s midfield that was in shambles last season. Ghanaian striker Gilberto Fiamenyo is yet to be tested in a competitive match on Kenya’s soil but his background is worth confidence with his signature.
Having been groomed at Netherlands Feyenoord Academy, played for Ghana giants Hearts of Hawk and Ebuasa Dwarfs, he could provide striking solution for Hall alongside Paul Kiongera and Alfred Wekesa. It is yet to show in the friendlies. Time will tell.
The preseason has been average, Ingwe featuring in low profile matches. Although he has cautioned fans titles may not come in his first season, Hall has what it takes to take back Ingwe to at least top five on the log.
If he fixes disciplinary issues that rocked his team last season and instill the fighting spirit he observed was lacking upon his arrival, Ingwe will roar back. However, he has to be left alone to decide what a coach must decide.
When he landed in Ruaraka from Muhoroni last season, former Tusker boss Paul Nkata promised to deliver trophies. He was doubted, but finally won a double before meticulously ditching the 11-times national champions for rivals Bandari.
That is the only major change that has happened at Tusker, which I bet will cost them the Premier League and FKF GOtv Shield they hold.
It will take time for George ‘Best’ Nsiimbe to cement authority at Tusker find the rhythm his predecessor and fellow Ugandan had anchored. Osborne Monday is notable figure in last season’s playing unit that will be missed in Ruaraka, now downing Kariobangi Sharks jersey.
Pundits have argued no player was special Tusker’s exploits in 2016, hence losing one or two will have little impact.
Pressure is on the former Unganda’s Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) and Azam tactician to replicate his predecessor’s achievements, knowing he has all the tools Nkata had when he won.
They have captured three defenders and three midfielders from the country and across the boarders as replacements of departed players. The defenders include Vincent Omumbo from Thika United, Samuel Olwande from Chemelil Sugar and Marlon Tangauzi from Uganda’s Saints FC.
Sydney Ochieng from NSL side Palos FC, Victor Ndinya from Bandari and Hassan Abdul formerly of African Lyon (Tanzania) form the midfield batch.
Those released are Monday, keeper Martin Musalia, Robert Omunuk and Louis Misiko.
And, could the exit of Chairman James Musyoki impact the club’s performance? I doubt. In a nutshell, what to expect with Tusker has partly been revealed after elimination by little known Mauritius side AS Port Louis at the preliminary stage of the Africa Champions League.
The Super Cup loss to Gor followed. It could be a dry season for them trophy wise, but they are firmly in the league title race.
Nzoia United, under the tutelage of former Harambee Stars striker Bernard Mwalala was ruthless against NSL clubs last season, amassing a whopping 92 points after 38 outings. KPL is a different stage though. The coach has been bullish his charges will shock opponents, but I bet they will find it rough against the experienced sides.
He kept a big chunk of the players who delivered the NSL gong, but has bolstered his squad with former Bandari and AFC Leopards right back Edwin Wafula, former Western Stima’s Job Endriseh and Dennis Ongeri who played for Posta Rangers last season.
A top 8 finish would be a good account for them, which is a possibility should they sustain last season’s spirit. What I completely rule out is a Sofapaka-like run in 2009, when they came from NSL to win the topflight.
However, I see them troubling Tusker in their opener on Saturday in Nakuru.
Another promoted side Kariobangi Sharks could end up doing what coach William Muluya offered, answering what is his minimum target for 2017. “We are new in the topflight and our aim is first to establish ourselves as a Premier League team. I cannot say that is our minimum though,” he told.
However, with obvious backing from major stakeholders in Kenyan football and experience gotten from experienced players in the topflight, they could pull a major surprise.
Besides Mboya and Monday, Muluya has Ebrimah Sanneh, Masoud Juma, Duke Abuya who featured in KPL last season. He believes they will cool the heat his 2016 squad members may be exposed to in the big stage.
Notably, Muluya’s influence at the club founded by FKF president Nick Mwendwa has been enormous since taking over last year in the mid-season. He inspired a fine run that saw them leap over a host of clubs including Zoo Kericho, KCB, Agro-Chemicals and Nakumatt FC to finish second.
It is difficult to predict where they will be in November, but don’t be shocked to see them fighting for space in the top five.
Ulinzi Stars kept almost every member of 2016, but lost two prominent members who will be missed greatly. Striker John Makwatta who has resigned from the military to pursue a full-time football career and former coach Robert Matano leaves the Soldiers shaken.
No player in the current squad can fit in Makwatta’s shoes, and coach Benjamin Nywangweso will have to add some strength upfront in the mid season if he has to keep up with the traditional big contenders in the race.
Only Baron Oketch, from Gor Mahia, has brought in some impetus that the Nakuru based club can boast of, but the depth is still wanting.
It could be a tough season for them, and could finish lower than the number three they managed last season.
If anyone thought the arrival of Nkata at Bandari was the best formula to the title, you are mistaken.
While coaches matter, clubs cultures matters too in hunt for trophies. The culture has not been favorable for coaches to thrive at the coastal club, their abilities notwithstanding.
Former Harambee Stars coach Twahir Muhidin who is currently the club’s Technical Director knows it better.
Nkata, who reunited with his former assistant at Tusker George Owoko has brought in experienced Gor duo Jacob Keli and Enock Agwanda. The two strikers failed to impress at Gor, hence their release which hints the level of services they are expected to offer.
Another former Gor striker Dan Sserunkuma, who bagged the KPL golden boot in 2015, also failed to inspire the dockers striking force last season.
The biggest blow to Bandari in the preseason was the exit of stiker David King’atua to Swedish third tier side Oskarshamns AIK, a player whose absence will certainly be felt.
Nkata has herculean task to lead his new club to at least top eight finish. A bottom ten will not be a surprise.
No KPL club executed as many major changes as Mathare United did in the preseason. Interestingly, replacements for the first team players who left were done through unattached players after a series of trials, and promotion of some youth team players.
The likes of Levis Opiyo and Chris Ochieng, signed after trials will ned more time to acclimatize with the top league football, which could derail Mathare’s campaign.
Francis Kimanzi, the Slum Boys coach, will have to do without among others, Kamura, Isuza, goalkeeper Robert Mboya and Eric Johanna who have since left the club.
He led the team to finish seventh last season, which I doubt he can this time round.
The 2008 champions finished seventh with 44 points last season and are candidates of going lower by all means.
Sofapaka flirted with relegation for almost the entire 2106 season, surviving in the last day at the expense of Ushuru. If they win their case at the sports tribunal, they will face tough times trying to regain the command they lost in the difficult season.
President Elly Kalekwa returned in the second leg after a long spell away from public, and has been active fighting for the club’s reinstatement in the top league since the case started.
The club hired former Ugandan international Sam Ssimbwa who has been sharpening the players for the season, but the financial issues raised by the FKF club licensing committee could continue haunting them.
In fact, the rain started beating Batoto ba Mungu when their sponsor withdrew in mid 2015, leaving Kalekwa as the sole source of revenue.
To date, the club has no corporate sponsor which places them at risk of relegation if players will be facing tough times like in 2016.
Also likely to be caught in the relegation dogfight is Muhoroni Youth who lost their key men in the latter stages of the previous campaign and despite setting off their season to a trailblazing start, engaged the reverse gear as they feel off the radar to finish 11th.
Club top scorer Wycliffe Ochomo was a glaring miss with the side that won the 2016 KPL Top 8 winners ultimately failing to make the cut to defend their crown this year. Among those that were forced out include veterans Lwamba Bebeto and Yusuf Mohammed.
With the club struggling to shake off a financial crisis, the odds look stacked against them to retain their top flight status in 2018.
KCB, Vihiga United and Nakumatt FC who all did not meet the criteria of promotion through sporting merit are other teams that could face the axe by November.
The clubs did not get a chance to sign for the big league since they were promoted after the transfer deadline.
The same teams were subjects, as some critics have put it, have come on board to fulfill Mwendwa’s promise of 18-team league in the name of club licensing.
It will be difficult for the ‘favored’ teams to match the speed of Premier League clubs.
The only advantage all NSL promoted teams have is probably the strength to play many matches in a season. They are used to this having played in a 20-team league in 2016, although the demands were different.
When KPL Limited was opposing the expansion, a major concern was congestion of fixtures which they said was not healthy for players.
It will be felt, especially for clubs that have to release players for the national team duty.
Meanwhile, watch out for new stars rising too, as you are guaranteed a new golden boot winner will be named after Makwatta’s exit. Muguna, last season’s MVP, may struggle to replicate his form at Western Stima with Gor, which is common for young players in star-studded squads.
Lastly, let the ball be played away from away from Nairobi, and see what fans can offer in other areas as Nyayo National Stadium and Safaricom Stadium Kasarani undergo renovation ahead of CHAN 2018.
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