Five Key Talking Points Of The 2018/19 SPL Season

Dec 04 - by Louis Kalinga for SportPesa News

The first round of matches in the opening weekend are set to kick off on Saturday, December 8

Humphrey Mieno of Gor Mahia FC in action against AFC Leopards SC during a recent SportPesa Premier League match. PHOTO/

  • The abridged 2018/19 campaign will run for six months as the country races to harmonise its top flight with the international FIFA calendar next year
  • Besides the SPL, Gor are involved in the CAF Champions League and will play defend their invitational regional SportPesa Cup tournament title in January having also earned a ticket to feature in the yet to be confirmed Cecafa Club Championships next year
  • Western Stima FC and KCB FC who returned to the SPL from the second tier are the teams who will be hoping to shake the established order to cement themselves in the SPL

NAIROBI, Kenya- Gor Mahia FC will launch the defence of their SportPesa Premier League (SPL) title on Saturday against 17 challengers hell-bent on ending their quest to extend their domestic record to 18 next May.

The abridged 2018/19 campaign will run for six months as the country races to harmonise its top flight with the international FIFA calendar next year.

After an exhausting nine months of action that saw crowned league winners with six games to spare on August 25, the shortened SPL season will stretch the 18 combatants, more-so the champions, to their limits.

Besides the SPL, Gor are involved in the CAF Champions League and will play defend their invitational regional SportPesa Cup tournament title in January having also earned a ticket to feature in the yet to be confirmed Cecafa Club Championships next year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the fight to avoid relegation will be as intriguing as the battle for the title with Mount Kenya United FC (formerly Nakumatt FC) who survived the axe by winning the SPL/National Super League play-off leading the teams eager to safeguard their top flight status.

Western Stima FC and KCB FC who returned to the SPL from the second tier are the teams who will be hoping to shake the established order to cement themselves in the SPL.

Here, SportPesa News underlines the five talking points of the new SPL season.

Gor face a stern test without departed Kerr

One of the key factors behind the back-to-back title successes of the champions was the charismatic Briton Dylan Kerr, who joined the team in July 2017, half a season after Tusker FC dethroned them.

Kerr was a hit with his players, eking performance after performance from the team despite the numerous challenges that befell the club and last season, a suffocating fixtures list that would have brought even the biggest teams in the world to their knees.

With Gor playing in the CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup, Shield, Cecafa Club Championship and SportPesa Cup amid their SPL charge, it was a minor miracle they sealed the title with six games to spare.

However, since beating bitter rivals Leopards, the tail end of their 2018 SPL campaign was nothing to write home about, punctuated by a month-long player's protest over unpaid dues. 

After a 1-2 first loss to Bandari, K’Ogalo went down to relegated Thika United FC (0-1), Ulinzi Stars (0-2), Vihiga United FC (0-2) and Tusker FC (0-1) as chinks appeared in their once impregnable armour.

Last month, Kerr left the team to take over at South African outfit, Black Leopards FC leaving his assistant Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno in temporary charge of the team as they seek a permanent replacement.

The champions have brought in new faces to bolster the side in returning midfielder Kenneth Muguna, left-back Shafiq Batambuze from Singida United FC, Pascal Ogweno from Kariobangi Sharks FC and striker Nicholas Kipkirui from Zoo FC.

Burundi national team captain, Karim Nzigiyimana, who is a three-time league winner with is the standout name released by the club ahead of the new season so far with Kenya international, Francis Kahata said to be on his way to Algeria.

Cypriot Hassan Oktay is in town as a probable successor to Kerr with reports saying the club will offer him a three-month probation at first.

As the champions go about re-organising themselves, rivals have already scented blood, with Sharks who won the Shield last term beating them 0-1 in the KPL Super Cup and their opening fixture is against Bandari in Mombasa, the scene where their unbeaten run ended last term.

The last time Gor replaced a title winning coach, the club lost the crown in 2016 when Scot Frank Nutall left a month into the new season. Will history repeat itself?

One thing is certain, Kerr's shoes will take some replacing but also, Gor have traditionally thrived in adversity in their decorated history.

Can Leopards end the off field circus to snap their 21-year title drought?

Since returning to the top division in 2009, fanatical fans of domestic giants, Leopards start every campaign with only one wish. Winning the league title.

Supporters will have endured 21 years of heartache since the last time the title found its way to The Den in 1998 when they secured their 12th crown if their team does not deliver this term.

Salt has been rubbed to the wounds of the country's second most successful club by the crushing dominance of eternal enemies and 'in-laws' Gor who have carried five of the last six titles.

The closest they came to catching them was 2015 when they finished second and having finished seventh last term, optimism was high they would finally put together a formidable challenge when they hired Serbian Nikola Kavazovic five weeks ago.

“The coach has brought a new sense of belief into the team and we are full of confidence. We want to give it our all so we can give our fans and ourselves what we have been craving, a league title,” Leopards 2018 top scorer Whyvonne Isuza said.

However, the club confirmed last week that the new man and 25th head coach to lead the team since 2009 had left to attend to family matters at home throwing their final pre-season preparations into a tailspin.

On paper, Leopards have a squad as good as any to win the trophy but their ambitions have often been wrecked by off field matters led by the technical bench musical chairs.

Forthcoming club elections in April could have a huge bearing on how the team performs on the field. 

Ingwe faithful are hoping the off field circus can give way to a stable technical and playing unit for their long-cherished dream to be realised. 

Sharks have the potential to topple the established order

Formed in 2000, Sharks who are one of the youngest teams in the top flight have shaken up the established order of Kenyan football in the last two seasons.

Coach William Muluya has developed a system that seems to be working well for Sharks, who won their maiden trophy last season in the Shield to follow up their third SPL finish in 2017 and after a stuttering start, recovered to close last term in sixth.

Their continental debut in the second tier Confederations Cup was as seamless as anyone could imagine when they hammered Arta Solar of Djibouti 6-1 at MISC, Kasarani taking a commanding lead into the second leg.

Days later, they beat the champions in the traditional season curtain-raiser with Sydney Lokale scoring a winner any K’Ogalo diehard would have been proud of.

Since earning promotion at the end of the 2016 season, Muluya has kept his team flying in the SPL, having been forced to lose his top scorers in subsequent campaigns, Masoud Juma (2017) and Eric Kapaito (2018) who has joined Tusker.

“I'm very proud of my players and this is the perfect way to go into a new season. The attitude coming from the team is very encouraging and everyone should look out for Sharks this season, we still have a lot to prove,” Muluya underlined.

Now in his third season in the SPL, Muluya has learned enough lessons to mount a title challenge with Sharks, with their opening fixture offering them a litmus test when they face Leopards on Sunday.

How high can the Bandari rising tide go?

In the history of the Kenyan top flight established in 1963, only one team from the football mad coast region, Feisal FC has ever lifted the national title and Bandari came close last season.

The second-place finish was the highest that the club has ever achieved in their history and their much-talked victory over Gor makes their opening match-up on Saturday that more enticing.

Al-Bandr as fans in the coastal region know them, are full of confidence going they can go one better and emulate the legendary Feisal.

“Pre-season has gone on well and I am glad that the management has been able to retain almost all the players I had last season.

“We are prepared for the start of the league and our main focus is to execute our chances in the opening game against Gor and we can go from there,” head coach Bernard Mwalala stated.

The remarkable 2018 season saw them produce two winners during the SPL Awards, Farouk Shikhalo (Golden Glove) and Captain Felly Mulumba (Defender of the Year).

Will 'Lion' Matano and Tusker make it 12 in May?

Seasoned head coach, Robert 'The Lion' Matano's revolution at 11-time winners Tusker FC almost went unnoticed last term when he lifted the team he led to the 2012 league success to finish third after flirting with relegation.

Having won the title with Sofapaka FC on their debut in 2009, Matano who was shunted from the team he established his no-nonsense reputation, as a player, Leopards at the beginning of last term, knows a thing or two about winning domestic titles.

With a whole pre-season and shrewd new signings including the aforementioned Kapaito, Rwanda striker Muzerwa Amini, midfielder Clyde Sinaji (Vihiga United FC) and defender Hillary Wandera (Nzoia Sugar FC) among others, the Brewers are gunning for the good times in Ruaraka by intoxicating the competition.

History favours them too. The last time Gor fired a title winning coach as stated above, they ended up with crown and remain the only other team besides the champions to lift the trophy since 2011.

Who will go down and which team will surprise all?

With Wazito FC joining Thika in the SPL relegation scrap heap, Western and KCB punched their promotion tickets from the second tier to join a list of clubs hoping to make a seismic impact this season.

Paul Ogai and the Kisumu-based power men talked of mounting a title-challenge on their return to the high table of domestic football but as they soon found out, SPL is a different kettle of fish as they went down 0-3 to Sony Sugar FC last weekend in a friendly.

Of concern to the well-backed team will be to maintain their top-flight status.

After finishing second behind Western, KCB hired former Wazito boss and Gor assistant, Frank Ouna to embed them in the top flight and the bankers went on to sign nine new players, including Tanzanian keeper and SportPesa Cup star, Peter Manyika from Singida.

Having survived via a play-off, many expect Mount Kenya to struggle alongside the likes of Chemelil Sugar FC, Posta Rangers FC and Vihiga United FC who flirted with the chop last term.

However, as Kakamega Homeboyz FC (2017) and Bandari (2018) proved in 2017, there will be that team outside the so called giants, Gor, Leopards, Tusker, Sofapaka and Ulinzi Stars FC who will shake up the competition. On pre-season evidence, KCB could play the dark horse role.

SPL OPENING WEEKEND FIXTURES- All matches kick off at 3pm local time (+3GMT) unless stated

Nakumatt FC vs Sofapaka FC – 2PM

Posta Rangers FC vs Western Stima FC

Mathare United FC vs Chemelil Sugar FC

Kakamega Homeboyz FC vs KCB FC

Bandari FC vs Gor Mahia FC

Vihiga United FC vs Ulinzi Stars

Zoo FC vs Nzoia Sugar FC

AFC Leopards SC vs Kariobangi Sharks FC

Sony Sugar FC vs Tusker FC