NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 2- After just about four weeks of pre-season training – a period which most coaches have described as short – the guns have finally gone off and the 2018 season of the Kenyan Premier League will kick off this weekend with nine matches lined up across various venues.
While some teams are talking of breaking their own trophy droughts, others retaining top flight status, all eyes will be on holders Gor Mahia as they kick start a journey to pick a 17th league title, taking them four clear of rivals AFC Leopards still stuck on 13 since 1998.
-Gor Mahia v Nakumatt – Kenyatta Stadium, 3pm.
K’Ogalo who began their season with the Super Cup win over AFC Leopards last weekend fly off their title defense at their new home ground, the Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos with a tie against the cash strapped Nakumatt FC.
Head coach Dylan Kerr expects an all-out battle against Nakumatt despite the fact that his side is regarded as one of the strongest in the league due to their transfer business.
“Nakumatt are no pushovers and last season they proved that pushing us to the wall in both matches. We have to keep true to ourselves, start well and ensure we get a win,” Kerr, keen to see his side fly to another dominant season said.
Gor have some huge squad depth after bringing on board several high profile players in January including Humphrey Mieno and Cersidy Lumumba from Tusker FC, Nzoia Sugar midfielder Lawrence Juma and speedy winger Samuel Onyango from Ulinzi.
Kerr admits he will have a tough time picking his starting eleven with the plethora of talent at his disposal but has thrown the challenge back to his players urging them to fight for the jersey.
Nakumatt on their side have been forced to rebuild with a new team following massive exits occasioned by the dip in financial strength with their sponsors – Supermarket chain Nakumatt – thrown into financial oblivion.
Head coach Anthony Mwangi has his work cut out and his biggest task will be to motivate the players with minimal financial strength.
Among the players who have landed at Nakumatt include the experienced Noah Abich and Moses Odhiambo who orchestrated Sofapaka’s survival in the top flight in 2016 under more or less the same circumstances.
-Posta Rangers v AFC Leopards, Afraha Stadium, 4:15pm-
Without a Premier league title since 1998, domestic cup champions AFC Leopards launch yet another campaign to drag their names off the mud when they kick off their campaign against an experienced Posta Rangers side in Nakuru.
They might have started their season with a Super Cup loss against arch rivals Gor, but head coach Robert Matano has warned anyone not to underrate the Leopards in the new season.
“I am very happy with the players and what they showed against Gor. There has been improvement and I am looking forward to better performances,” said Matano, before bellowing that he is a winner and will be going for titles in 2018.
Matano made away with a huge chunk of the squad that almost fought relegation last season, sprucing up his squad with fresh faces, most of who started in last weekend’s game against Gor.
Among the players who showed they could be trusted to do the job for Matano are forwards Prince Arkoh (Ghanaian) and baker Lukooya (Ugandan) who were some of the shining lights.
Still, the absence of an out and out striker is a worry for Matano with Prince Uche who came on as a sub failing to show much.
Matano who is seeking a third league title with a third different team also re-united with midfielder Joseph Kuria and winger Ezekiel Otuoma who were his loyal lieutenants during his 18-month stint at Ulinzi Stars.
Posta Rangers who finished the season fourth last season are a tough nut to crack and coming up against a side they picked four out of a maximum six points last season, head coach Sammy Omollo will go in with some heap of confidence.
Omollo has reinforced the team in the exact area he struggled in last season; striking.
The mailmen had the meanest defense last season with 22 goals, but they were equally mean in hitting the opponents’ net having scored a paltry 28 goals in 34 matches, an embarrassing return of less than a goal per match.
They have brought in Marcelus Ingotsi from AFC Leopards, Jeremiah Wanjala from Homeboyz, Danson Kago from Tusker while the ever green, creative mind of Peter ‘Pinchez’ Opiyo will be there to open up the pockets of spaces.
-Ulinzi Stars v Zoo Kericho, Afraha Stadium, 2pm-
The military side, without a domestic title since their KPL Top 8 win in 2011 are without two of the players who starred for them last season; Stephen Waruru and Samuel Onyango who left for Sofapaka and Gor respectively.
They have also done away with their 2010 league winning coach Benjamin Nyangweso for former Harambee Stars man Dunstan Nyaudo while defender Geoffrey Kokoyo will miss the first half of the season as he is out on military studies.
They begin their campaign at home against a side that beat them home and away last season and Nyaudo will want to make his home debut with a win.
Their transfer activity has seen them land only one high profile arrival, striker Masuta Masita from Nzoia Sugar. The rest are rather unknown faces. However, they have been boosted with the return of fleet footed Kevin Amwayi.
A seventh place finish last season was the worst performance for Ulinzi since 2009 when they finished 10th and that is a statistic Nyaudo will want to ensure doesn’t replicate in 2018.
Zoo on their side have kept almost the whole squad from last season and have been quiet in the transfer window, bringing in only four new players.
–Tusker v Chemelil Sugar, Chemelil Complex, 3pm
Sam Timbe will lead his Tusker side out for the first time in a competitive fixture when the brewers take on Chemelil Sugar at their backyard in Awasi this weekend.
Timbe is working with a new outfit, Tusker having seen 14 players most of who were regular starters leave the club at the end of a very underachieving 2017.
The Ugandan in his second stint in Kenya having previously coach Sofapaka has his work cut out; silverware or leave. A 1-0 loss in a high profile friendly against Ugandan champions Kampala City Council Authority gave him perhaps the clearest picture of what he needs to do.
Chemelil have also quite changed from last season including in the technical department where Abdallah Juma was replaced quietly by Patrick Odhiambo as head coach.
The sugar belt side has also lost key players from last season, Shaphan Oyugi joining Kariobangi Sharks, keeper Jairus Adira going to AFC Leopards alongside Japhary Owiti while Apollo Otieno also left to join Tusker.
-Vihiga, Wazito debut
New boys Vihiga United and Wazito FC will make their maiden bow into top flight football both at home, Vihiga playing Mathare United in Kakamega while Wazito host Sony Sugar at Camp Toyoyo.
Both sides have expressed their desire to make an impact in the top tier league with Wazito boss Frank Ouna insisting they will not be coming in to make the numbers.
Ouna has orchestrated a huge change for Wazito, turning them from a semi-pro side when he joined them mid-season in 2016 and ensuring they automatically qualify for the top flight last season.
“We are coming in to compete and ensure we remain in the league. It is the first time for us but we are ready for the challenge,” Ouna said.
Ouna has spiced up his squad with a few faces who have had top flight experience, midfielder Harun Nyakha and goalkeeper Edwin Mukolwe joining from AFC Leopards, Moses Otieno joining from Posta Rangers, Francis Ochollah from Sofapaka and Athman Buki from Kakamega Homeboyz.
KPL weekend fixtures (kick off 3pm unless stated):
Saturday: Ulinzi Stars v Zoo Kericho (2pm), Posta Rangers v AFC Leopards (Afraha Stadium, 4:15pm), Gor Mahia v Nakumatt, Chemelil Sugar v Tusker FC (Chemelil Complex), Nzoia Sugar v Kariobangi Sharks (Sudi Stadium, Bungoma), Wazito v Sony Sugar (Camp Toyoyo).
Sunday: Sofapaka v Bandari (Narok Stadium), Thika United v Kakamega Homeboyz (Thika Stadium), Vihiga United v Mathare United (Bukhungu Stadium, Kakamega).