Billed as a potential title decider, champions Tusker FC and leaders AFC Leopards boxed out a 0-0 stalemate on Friday night at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium that only served to blow the race for the big-eared trophy wide open.
After 90+2 minutes of what was a lurid match, the only side celebrating were Gor Mahia who could climb to second and three points of the leaders with a home win against Sony Sugar on Sunday.
Tusker, under their new coach Robert Matano kept their title defence on track by going in hard on Ingwe and succeeding in unsettling their passing rhythm.
“We expected to win but I’m happy with the fighting spirit of the boys who managed to keep possession intact,” a dejected Jan Koops who lost the first leg 2-0 in Mombasa in March said post-match.
Leopards still lead the log on 45 with the Brewers holding on to second four adrift as they kept their proud unbeaten streak against Ingwe that now stretches back to 14 years!
The match started on high tempo although the first sniff at goal was when Nigerian striker Joseph Emeka rose for a free header from a Joseph Shikokoti long throw in the 11th minute but Patrick Matasi on goal for the leaders kept it out.
Mike Barasa was on the prowl on the opposite end two minutes later as he dribbled past Jockins Atudo in the box, but he could not get the ball past a charging Boniface Olouch who stood tall between the sticks for Tusker.
After a period of much endeavour but little goal mouth excitement Barasa failed to spark proceeding just past the half hour mark when he collected a fine pass from strike partner Allan Wanga from the right only to blast the ball wide from the edge of the box.
The Brewers who set about to literally knock off Leopards from their stride with a number of crunching tackles, took a moment off their containment game to feed Emeka curled the ball high up to the Nairobi sky as they went to the break scoreless.
Leopards began the second period determined to pile pressure in search of the opener with Wanga almost fashioning one from the blue when he turned quickly and fired just past the right post of Odhiambo in the 51st.
Six minutes later, Tusker who weathered the storm by imposing their muggy game almost profited against the run of play when Joshua Oyoo snatched the ball from a sloppy Edwin Wafula but shot straight at Matasi who saved with his feet.
Kenneth Wendo came close at the hour mark after a Peter Opiyo cross that was headed out for a goal-kick was punched back into play by Matasi, who was looked shaky throughout the match, but the Tusker man headed the rebound wide with a gaping net to aim at.
Despite Koops introducing speedy winger and former Tusker darling Paul Were in the 63rd, who replaced the weary Burundi import Florient Ndayisaba, they could not find a way past the stubborn champions who deployed a 4-5-1 formation.
Wafula shot wide five minutes later from the right after he was put on goal by the substitute to spurn their next opportunity.
It was Tusker, who almost carried the day with ten minutes to go courtesy of the jittery Matasi who went walkabout in his goal area when he inexplicably opted to chase Opiyo on his left.
The midfielder, who was chasing a through ball, rounded up the stranded keeper and launched an effort towards the unguarded net only for defender Eric Masika to make a remarkable recovery to head the ball off the line and in the end, salvage a point.
“Am not disappointed at all with the game, we played well and got the draw,” said Tusker tactician Matano who denied his former employers the chance to open an imposing seven-point chasm at the top had they won.
With Gor coach Zdravko Logarusic, club secretary, George Bwana and a horde of the Green Army brigade watching from the stands, the final whistle brought a roar from them as they scented their archrivals blood ahead of their September 23 derby.
But first, they have to navigate past plucky Sony, who are known as ‘Gor B’ with former tactician, Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno who was the last K’Ogalo captain to lift the league title in 1995 out to derail their recent charge.
Only seven games remain for the title chasers as the pressure cooker moves two kilometres away from Nyayo to City Stadium on Sunday.
For Leopards the 14-year the wait for the title that is incidentally the same period they have failed to out-smart Tusker just got a bit longer.