NAIROBI, Kenya, May 22- League champions Tusker FC held on for dear life to reach their first KPL Top 8 final after surviving the most riveting second half onslaught from departing champions Gor Mahia in the return leg of their semi.
It tells volumes of what transpired in the frenetic last 45 minutes of the tie that ended 1-0 on aggregate to Tusker following a barren draw on Wednesday night that Gor reserve keeper, Phillip Mapunda, was voted man of the match.
“The game was good despite we lost but that is the nature of the game. We wanted to win but we lost but we made all the effort to win,” Mapunda said after the game.
“We have to bounce back from this so that we can concentrate on winning the league. We have noted the mistakes we made and our coach will correct them,” he added.
“You saw it all. We played well but we could not score and it is goals that matter. We have a squad of 25 and we have to balance the squad for the league and the cup but some players like Ali (Abondo) do not want to play.
“We have given them all an opportunity to excel and some will have to go,” the disappointed Gor assistant coach, Bobby Ogolla, remarked with his boss, Croat Zradvko Logarusic incensed enough not to honour his post-match media obligations.
Needing to score at least once to send the two-legged semi to penalties, K’Ogalo threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Tusker after the break in a bid to hold on to the trophy but after 94 minutes of action, it was the Brewers who celebrated qualifying for the final where Thika United await.
With Robert Matano’s side out to atone for being knocked out at the same stage last season, Tusker began the first half keen on building on the 1-0 lead from the first leg provided by Robert Omonuk as they took the game to Gor.
They forced three corners in succession during the opening minute that almost caught out Mapunda with Ugandan Omunuk, Jesse Were and Ismail Dunga failing to get a decisive touch.
Boxed into a corner, it was a mystery how Gor went to the break with 11 men on the pitch as they resorted to rough house tactics led by stand-in captain, Donald Mosoti, who was booked only once despite ditching a number of crunching illegal tackles.
Another to escape referee Sylvester Kirwa’s naughty book was David Otieno who was only yellow-carded when he tore through Justine Monda on the stroke of half time.
“It was very rough, I don’t know how the Mosoti and the rest were not given the red card,” a perplexed Matano said after the match.
In between the meaty tackles, Edwin Lavatsa put Rama Salim through on goal with 14 minutes gone only for the striker’s shot to be blocked before it could trouble Samuel Odhiambo in the Tusker goal.
In the 29th, Khalid Aucho was booked for diving as he fell when he came together with Musa Mohammed in the K’Ogalo box but again, Kirwa bizarrely declined to give the Tusker man the red after he vocally remonstrated with him about the decision with arms raised in rage.
After the break, Tusker again had Gor in the ropes in the opening minute but unlike the first half, K’Ogalo shed the rugby tactics and decided to crawl their way back to the tie by playing proper football.
Coach Logarusic aided the effort by bringing in striker, Dan Sserunkuma, for the ineffectual midfielder, Yusuf Juma, who is among those whose K’Ogalo career hangs in the balance.
“Some players do not want to play. We always mock him as the first sub and if he does not style up, the transfer window is coming,” Ogolla noted post-match.
With nine minutes in, a vicious Ali Abondo shot was blocked by Tusker’s defence and from the resultant play; Sserunkuma raced clear but to Logarusic’s horror, elected to cut back to no one in particular with only Odhiambo to beat.
That set the tone for Gor’s ascendancy with first Moses Odhiambo and then Joseph Njuguna coming on to pile the pressure on Tusker who chose to sit on their slim advantage.
On 70 Odhiambo brilliant shot from range was tipped just over by Tusker’s keeper on full-stretch before Salim’s goal bound header was deflected off for a corner five minutes later.
It was becoming target practise for K’Ogalo as Ivan Anguyo struck the cross bar on 80 before Sserunkuma and Salim traded opportunities to miss instead of scoring as the game teetered on a knife edge.
In retired Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson ‘Fergie Time’ Mapunda made a fascinating triple-save to thwart Tusker from sealing the tie having played the previous ten minutes as a stopper as he came off his goal to launch attacks.
The final whistle brought an end to K’Ogalo’s Top 8 reign, the first time they will not appear in the final having lost to Ulinzi in the inaugural edition in 2011 before winning it last year.
“I think we are going to get it. It was a dirty game from Gor and those are poor tactics of football,” Matano summed the cup victory as he eyed Thika in the Sh1m tournament final.
Tusker and Gor meet again in the Kenyan Premier League in ten days time in an encounter likely to carry the after effects from this game.