Maybe Fifa rankings give a fair picture, after all. And part of that picture is in Group E of the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers.
After four match days, Kenya and Rwanda - two countries ranked outside the top 100 in the world - are fittingly out of contention to Qatar with two matches left.
Mali and Uganda - the two in the top century - justifiably lead standings in that order, and the remaining two games, one of which they go at each other - are cup finals for them.
After completing a double over Rwanda, Uganda now next face Kenya at home before a potentially decisive one against Mali in Morocco.
Let us take a peek at how the song is going so far, and how Micho Sredojevic is fairing in his second stint as Cranes coach.
Transition going just fine
The central defence pairing continues to show that Uganda are blessed in that area. Even with injury keeping Halid Lwaliwa, the last man to score at Kitende a year ago before Fahad Bayo broke that duck at the weekend, Uganda have continued to keep it just tight, there.
And after Murushid Juuko was sent off against Mali, Timothy Awany effortlessly came in to partner Enoch Walusimbi, who has remained a mainstay since Lwaliwa’s injury, against Rwanda. Micho has also displayed the ever present riches at left back, handing youngster Aziz Kayondo a full debut against Rwanda, while midfielder Bobosi Byaruhanga, who has played all four games, has proved to be the Serbian coach’s fulcrum in this transition thing.
Another freshman in first call-up and debutant Livingston Mulondo also helped see through the clean sheet after replacing injured Awany on Sunday. Upfront, Fahad Bayo looks like he has embraced the lead man role, scoring Uganda’s only two goals so far.
Ismail Watenga and Charles Lukwago in goal have also showed that retired Denis Onyango - bar the leadership the Ugandan legend exhibited - is not much missed after all, so far. They have shared the four games and kept clean sheets in all.
Still lots of work to do
After going close to 10 matches without victory, style was the last on Micho’s priority list even as fans wondered what Uganda Cranes identity is. The first goal was still missing, and so was the first victory.
Those were Micho and his technical team’s interest. And boy they gritted through it. While the table standings in Group E show just two points difference between Uganda and Mali, the West Africans have plundered the back of the net seven times compared to Uganda’s two. The Malians have also demonstrated that they are a better team technically and are more experienced. They have a pattern of play and have individual players who can decide the game any time.
The same can hardly be said of Uganda, who are still looking to find themselves. That, as Micho has often said, will perhaps come with time but for now, and with two more games to determine who wins the group, the job has been done. But even he knows that ultimately more is yet and needs to be done.
Defence remains Cranes forte
Better finishing from Rwanda could have diluted this stat, but you have to give it up for Uganda’s organisation and effort in defence. This has always been the Cranes strong point, and even with the likes of Bevis Mugabi being forced out by travel restrictions, Lwaliwa being out injured and Onyango hanging his gloves among others, Micho’s men have kept it tight at the back.
Actually, only Uganda, Tunisia, Morocco and Mali were yet to concede a goal by yesterday. But of course the reverse is true the other end of the pitch. Uganda’s brilliant defence is not matched by the attack.
Of the mentioned teams that are yet to concede, Uganda have scored just twice, with the closest ‘poor’ scorers, Mali, seven.
Cooler heads needed
The youngsters or fresher players seem to be doing better in terms of appearing in the refereeing book. Instead, it is the more experienced ones that seem to be picking unnecessary cards, and Uganda are lucky that it has not disastrously cost them yet. Against Mali in Kitende, one would have expected better from Murushid Juuko, who Micho said they had talked to to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. He was already on a yellow card, but that did not stop Juuko from jumping in at a Malian defender when the best choice was do nothing.
A resultant straight red card saw him miss both games against Rwanda. Captain Khalid Aucho also knew he was a booking away from suspension in Kigali. But dissent saw him get the one card that would rule him out of the Kampala tie. The final two games will need hungrier but cooler heads than this.
Uganda must beat Kenya
That Mali are clear favourites in this group cannot be emphasized. From their play, scoring and the table standings, they are clearly the team to beat if Uganda are to advance to the final phase of qualification due next March. But there will be no point in beating Mali away in Morocco if the Cranes fail to pick maximum points against Kenya next month.
A draw against the Harambee Stars in Kampala and a Mali win in Kigali would confirm the West Africans as the group winners. So for Micho’s men to remain in control of things, they must beat Kenya to give themselves a chance of shocking the world in the final match against Mali.
Group E fixtures/Results
Match Day 1 results
Mali 1-0 Rwanda
Kenya 0-0 Uganda
Match Day 2 results
Rwanda 1-1 Kenya
Uganda 0-0 Mali
Match Day 3, Oct. 6
Mali 5-0 Kenya
Rwanda 0-1 Uganda
Match Day 4, Oct. 10
Kenya 0-1 Mali
Uganda 1-0 Rwanda
Match Day 5, Nov. 11
Uganda vs Kenya
Mali vs Rwanda
Match Day 6, Nov. 14
Mali vs Uganda
Kenya vs Rwanda
Play-offs, March 2022