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How halftime talk made KCCA FC beat Egypt’s Al-Ahly

It is not usual that the KCCA FC manager Mike Mutebi conducts the halftime team talk. It is the work of his assistants.

However, during the halftime of his team’s encounter with Al-Ahly Sports Club of Egypt in the Caf Champions League on Tuesday May 15 at Namboole stadium, Mutebi came bursting into the locker-room in his fitting Royal blue suit.

KCCA FC's Sadam Juma beats Al-Ahly's Marwan Tharwat

Surprising as this was to the players, this whole episode showcased the significance of the whole occasion. In fact, the team talk that ensued turned around KCCA’s fortunes from a jittery and tentative first half to an assured and incisive second half display.

According to sources, Mutebi was his usual assertive; serious and tough, to emphasize the significance of the match. You see, having lost their opening group game to Botswana’s Township Rollers 0-1 on May 4 away in Gaborone, KCCA were in a must-win situation.

Anything short of a win would have been detrimental to their ambitions of making it to the quarter-finals of the Caf Champions League. Although many feel that KCCA is just too outlandish, to envisage a situation, where they emerge from this group, which also has former champions, Tunisia’s Esperance, Mutebi will not be sidetracked.

And it all showed in his halftime team talk: “Guys, what are we doing; what are we playing?” Mutebi asked his charges.

He went on to challenge his players, wondering out loud, “Is that the way we have been preparing to play the game all this time, where people are panicking in possession and losing balls carelessly?”

At the time, all the players listened attentively. They were quiet and reflecting, taking in their manager’s bullish, yet specific message. It was a piercing and provocative one, especially when one considers what Mutebi said as he made his concluding remarks.

Moments before the referee from South Africa Victor Gomes would call them out for the second half, Mutebi told his players, that there were thousands of football fans in the stands, that had come for the game expecting a good display from them. But that is not what they were getting.

Instead, according to Mutebi, all the fans were seeing, was a team playing with far too much fear for the opponent, and not expressing themselves with purpose. It was clear during the first half of that game that a number of KCCA players were not playing with the required freedom.

They played so much on the edge, and with little confidence, which meant that they lacked the gusto to put Al-Ahly under any sustainable pressure. Instead, it was KCCA under the cosh, giving Al-Ahly various opportunities to win the game.

Yet, when Mutebi asked them to speak whether any of them did not feel comfortable going back for the second half, they were all mum: “Whoever intends to go back and play like we did in the first half, better tell me now and I remove you.”

When no one asked to be substituted, Mutebi, nevertheless, pulled off midfielder Jackson Nunda for youthful Lawrence Bukenya, to add more bite in the midfield. Mutebi then quickly said, “Then let us go back and show Al-Ahly and all the fans out there what we are made of. Let us play our way with conviction, energy, belief and expression.”

And like everyone in the stands probably noticed, it was a whole new KCCA in the second half. Unlike the first half, where KCCA’s goalkeeper Charles Lukwago had to speed off his goal-line a few times to save his defenders’ blushes, in the second half, the Kasasiro boys were really buoyed, playing on the front foot, as ordered by Mutebi.

KCCA took charge, upping the ante, running Al-Ahly rugged, with their quick passing and movement, which showcased a more offensive side of the hosts that the visitors had not seen earlier. As a result, KCCA secured a 2-0 win.

In addition Al-Ahly were kept at bay, limiting them to a few incursions in the second half. It was now Al-Ahly’s turn to be hurried and robbed of possession, something they had done for much of the first half, when they had KCCA chasing shadows.    

Considerably, one could say that only an act of God kept the scoreline goalless at halftime. To be precise, it was actually the hand of God, seen in goalkeeper Lukwago’s one-handed block of Walid Said’s penalty on 25 minutes.

“You just cannot imagine how big that save by Lukwago was for us. It was massive; a real confidence booster,” said midfielder Sadam Juma, who scored KCCA’s opening goal against Al-Ahly.

Every passing day, Lukwago’s stock at KCCA has continued to grow. But not any less, is the impact his manager is having since being appointed in June 2015. When Sadam was asked about his manager’s rant at halftime, and whether what The Observer had gathered was indeed the case, he just laughed.

However, Sadam was quick to say how the manager lifted their spirits through his halftime talk. “Going into that game, all we heard was people discussing the number of goals we would lose by to Al-Ahly. No body gave us a chance. That probably got to our heads, which made us nervous at the start.”

Yet, at resumption, Sadam continued, they returned with their eyes lit and a newfound faith. And if that faith enabled KCCA conquer Al-Ahly, Sadam sees no reason why they still cannot win the 2017/2018 Uganda Premier League title, despite being five points behind leaders Vipers SC on the log.

KCCA face Bright Stars in Mwererwe today with a chance to close that gap to two points. And with two league games left, the situation remains so dicey for one to be certain of its eventual outcome.

Sadam said that all they have to do is beat Bright Stars, and shift the pressure back onto Vipers, who face Express FC next week. There is no room for error at this juncture. But Sadam knows it will not be easy overcoming Bright Stars, who have only lost once at home this season.

“It will be a daunting task for us to get three points from Mwererwe, because Bright Stars are tough. But we have to find a way of getting all three points, if we are to keep our League prospects alive,” Sadam said.

In terms of form, Bright Stars has won two, drawn three and lost one of its last six league games, whereas for KCCA, they have won three, drawn two and lost one game in the same period. While KCCA has had better form, Mwererwe is a difficult place to go to and win.

The hard and bumpy playing surface there would normally be a challenge for teams like KCCA that play a passing game, and enjoy to build from the back. The unevenness of the ground would interrupt the desired cohesion. Therefore, teams which choose pragmatism and direct play have a higher chance of getting a result over Bright Stars.

That also depends on what kind of form Bright Stars’ lead striker Nelson Ssenkatuka is found in. With 15 league goals, and leading the scorers’ chart, Ssenkatuka is desperate to add to his tally in order to steer clear of the chasing pack.

Winning the ‘Golden Boot’ is so important for Ssenkatuka, so he will be eager to score against his former employers. Similarly KCCA’s Muhammad Shaban is not keen on carrying the tag of perpetual bridesmaid.

Last season he was the second top-scorer with 13 goals, eight behind Geoffrey Sserunkuma. So, for Shaban, scoring against Bright Stars gets him closer to Ssenkatuka, and possibly the top scorer’s award.

And as for Bright Stars’ coach Fred Kajoba, finishing as high up as fifth in the league, will bring financial reward from the club’s management. So, Kajoba’s pep talk should be impassioned enough to trigger a reaction from his team.

Meanwhile, when Bright Stars faced KCCA in Lugogo earlier in the season, the tie ended 0-0. That should give Bright Stars confidence before its home fans. But it also goes without saying that KCCA is one of the few teams to beat Bright Stars in Mwererwe before.

For example, last season, KCCA beat Bright Stars 2-1, with goals coming from Geoffrey Sserunkuma and Derrick Nsibambi. But KCCA will be without defender Mustafa Kizza, attacker Allan Okello and midfielder Julius Poloto, all of whom were instrumental in the win over Al-Ahly.

The trio is away with the under-20 team in Cameroon; not that it worries KCCA Manager Mutebi. He insisted that they have a big squad and enough quality to put Bright Stars to the sword the way Al-Ahly was. 

jovi@observer.ug

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