Kampala- That Uganda saw off Angola at the Namboole fortress in full view of over 40,000 spectators on Saturday in itself was not the foremost shift.
But the modus in which they completed the recovery, an inspiring Emmanuel Okwi on the magic switchboard of a 2-1 remarkable victory that not only continued Uganda’s eight-year unbeaten home run, but kept enough fuel in the tank until Cranes meet Senegal in September in Group J’s final game, left everyone awestruck.
Milutin Micho Sredojevic’s men showed an astonishing character in wresting victory from the jaws of defeat, such mettle that has eluded the Cranes in similar circumstances recently. The last time Uganda won a qualifier at Namboole after falling behind was seven years ago - a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, but the manner in which that was conjured left a bitter taste in the visitors’ mouth thanks to some questionable decisions on one of the two penalties.
But on an evening multitudes of Ugandans descended upon the stadium named after the ailing South African icon, Nelson Mandela, the Cranes did it all fair and square and without external help, but mainly the magic of Okwi and Tonny Mawejje, who was making it two-time lucky following his act against Liberia seven days earlier.
Here are some talking points from action at Namboole.
Okwi is Cranes talismanic striker
An enigma of a striker, whose body language at times triggers fan-substitutions, was as magical on the day as his recovery from an ankle injury picked just two days to the match. After getting the confirmed Cranes lineup - apart from Moses Oloya - the only change from the team that started against Liberia, Okwi’s name struck me like a sharp knife. “Whether Okwi is fully fit is a tale to be told on the pitch over two hours away. Striker twisted an ankle on Wednesday,” my tweeting fingers typed away.
And boy did he tell the tale! Micho must be as delighted as the Etoile du Sahel striker for he never betrayed the Serb’s faith in him.
First, Okwi was running rings around Fabricio Mafuta and company but Geoffrey Massa hardly did justice to the service on three-plus counts. Okwi did disappear midway but when he resurfaced, it was with a bazooka that Angola goalkeeper Hugo Marques had to be at full stretch to keep out.
And then an in-swinging cross that ended in Marques’ goal after the goalkeeper misjudged the ball’s flight to delight of the frenzied stadium and chagrin of the visitors, who had led thanks to Ricardo Estevao’s goal.
Okwi was not done, though. Just like he did the week before, he crafted for Mawejje to seal the sweet victory. On the evening, Okwi, who loves using the ball rather than get bored up field, proved he is Uganda’s talisman.
Mutumba the playmaker Cranes want
From a decoy he was against Senegal, through a recovery session against Liberia to a more astute player he was after coming on as substitute against Angola, Martin Mutumba is slowly but steadily winning over Cranes faithful and his place on the team.
Out goes Massa for Robert Ssentongo, in comes Hamis Kiiza for Moses Oloya, and Mutumba for Geoffrey Kizito… Micho had made some telling switches.
Mutumba was suddenly everywhere, threading a no-look pass to Okwi, gliding a through ball to Kiiza only for the striker to be tagged down by Fabricio, the defender seeing red for that, and beating an Angolan defender into submission at the corner flag to cap his 28th birthday. This is the kind of player Cranes want, one who can hold onto the ball and pick out that telling pass – in adversity.
Massa gave critics rope to hang him
Massa does not deserve crucifixion for an admittedly abysmal performance. He is not your one-goal a match striker but his performance when he came on as sub against Senegal, his goal agaist Zambia and general play against Liberia are testament he is not as bad a player as the one on Saturday evening.
But on the day, the Cyprus-based striker handed his critics the rope to hang him. Three glaring missed chances, including an empty net when Marques was miles off his line, plus lack of assuredness on the ball saw his poor day at office ended by Robert Ssentongo’s introduction. Only Godfrey Walusimbi, a usually calm personified left back, had a poorer day.
Tonny reminds us of the Mawejje we once anticipated
Finally Mawejje is playing with life again, and Mawejje can see the goal clearly, twice in seven days.
If his finish against Liberia was clinical, Saturday’s header was simply devilish, even brutal.
Club uncertainty has seen the midfielder miss the Liberia trip unfit but after returning to IBV in Iceland, Mawejje, who has been adventurous in the last two games, is close to the player that once threatened class.
Technically better side could slay Uganda
Of course the result keeps Uganda in with a credible shout at progressing but let the scoreline not mask the Cranes’ vulnerability.
Going into the final group game at a neutral ground against Senegal, Uganda’s porous midfield and conjecture in defence, exposed by both Liberia and Angola, are reason to worry.
Senegal were miles ahead in expression when they met Uganda last year and, given their class and Uganda’s travel tales, could hurt Micho’s men badly if the midfield and defence carelessly lose possession the way Baba, Hassan Wasswa, Isaac Isinde, Andy Mwesigwa and Godfrey Walusimbi at times did.