By Shafik Kiyaga
FIFA QC QUALIFIERS:
GROUP E: KENYA VS UGANDA
Picking up the pieces:
The memories of Uganda Cranes’ failed attempt to qualify for a third consecutive Africa Cup of Nations will still be fresh in everyone’s mind, but focus must now turn to trying and reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The past six months have not been the kindest for the Cranes, a defeat to Malawi in the final AFCON qualifier was followed by the sacking of former coach Johnathan McKinstry and retirements of crucial squad members including captain Denis Onyango and Michael Azira.
Abdallah Mubiru was placed in temporary charge as the Cranes attempted a reboot. However, by the time they play their first Group E qualifier against Kenya at the Nyayo National Stadium on Thursday, an old and familiar face will be in charge.
Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic will be in charge of the team as they attempt to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
FUFA has made it clear that they are not specifically targeting qualification for the 2022 edition in Qatar, but rather the 2026 tournament to be hosted by USA, Canada and Mexico.
But the ‘Serbian Wolf’ is one who relishes a challenge, and the coach boldly stated that he would like his team to give their best effort for qualification.
Micho guided the Cranes to their first AFCON in close to four decades in 2017, and with a plethora of talented youngsters ready to prove their worth in international football at his disposal, he has every right to be optimistic, but not overly ambitious.
There are five qualifying spots available for Africa, and the winners of the 10 qualifying groups will have to prevail in the playoff round, to earn their tickets to Qatar next year.
For now though, Micho’s Cranes must focus on the task at hand in Group E, with top spot not guaranteed given the competition that group mates Mali and neighbors Kenya and Rwanda can potentially pose.
Uganda has an opportunity to lay down the marker in the group early on, with the visit to Kenya followed by a home tie against Mali on September 6, before back-to-back clashes with Rwanda in October.
Poor Preparations, Poor form!
Uganda’s warm up for the start of the qualification period has been hardly ideal. The Cranes were defeated 2-1 by Ethiopia in a build up friendly on Sunday in what was Micho’s first game back in charge.
That precedes a run of seven games without victory for the Cranes across all competitions since November 2020.
Actually, draws to Rwanda in the CHAN finals and Botswana in the AFCON qualifiers represent the only time the Cranes avoided defeat since January 2021.
In contrast, the Harambee Stars of Kenya have won three of their four games this year, and also picked up a draw against Egypt. So, they will certainly harbor aspirations of getting one over their cross border rivals.
“This is a World Cup qualifier, and there is too much at stake. It will be a tough game. It is hard to play against the friends that we know,” Cranes coach Micho said ahead of the game.
“It is just one more episode of the unending football rivalry between Uganda and Kenya. We expect a good match of great football friends. We shall be sporting rivals for the 90 minutes on the pitch, but at the end of the match, we remain good East African relatives,” he added.
This will be the 16th meeting between the two rivals since December 2007. Uganda has been dominant in the fixture over the period of time, winning six games while Kenya has won only twice.
The last three meetings between Uganda and Kenya have ended in draws. The last time the two met was two years ago in September 2019.
Current Cranes captain Emmanuel Okwi gave Uganda a first half lead before Kenneth Muguna drew level with a strike in the 51st minute. The two are part of their respective national team squads for the game.
Micho has to try and build a fresh team especially with retirements and lack of action for many of the established internationals. He will have the chance to call upon some of the up-and-coming starlets.
Aziz Kayondo, Kenneth Ssemakula, Gavin Kizito, Bobosi Byaruhanga and Richard Basangwa have been graduated from the U20 side and will be hoping for a chance to prove their worth to the coach.
One area that Micho is not short of options is at left back, as he has up to four players in the squad for the game in Nairobi.
Joseph Ochaya has been a mainstay at left back since 2019. Mustafa Kizza has pushed for a place recently. Isaac Muleme bounces back after a period where he has been overlooked while U20 defender Kayondo has staked his claim for a national debut.
Ismail Watenga is the front runner to carry the mantle from where Onyango left, while Yunus Ssentamu’s goal scoring form with Vipers could see him rewarded with another opportunity.
Derrick Nsibambi, Steven Mukwala, Milton Karisa and Ibrahim Orit are in line of having some minutes alongside captain Okwi in attack.
The absence of Taddeo Lwanga who misses through injury means that Khalid Aucho and Moses Waiswa could line up against Kenya on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Kenya coach Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee maintained most of the players that played the AFCON qualifiers, including Al Duhail striker Michael Olunga.
Red Star Belgrade young midfielder Richard Odada is part of the squad in place of captain Victor Wanyama.
Uganda Cranes squad:
Goalkeepers: Charles Lukwago, Joel Mutakubwa, Ismail Watenga
Defenders: Enock Walusimbi, Innocent Wafula, Abdu Aziiz Kayondo, Halid Lwaliwa, Murushid Juuko, Gavin Kizito, Kenneth Ssemakula, Denis Iguma, Isaac Muleme, Mustafa Kizza, Joseph Ochaya
Midfielders: Bobosi Byaruhanga, Moses Waiswa, Khalid Aucho, Ibrahim Orit, Milton Karisa,
Forwards: Steven Mukwala, Emmanuel Okwi (Captain), Richard Basangwa, Yunus Sentamu, Derrick Nsibambi