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Not yet over; Express still in the midst of the title race

By Shafic Kiyaga
Focussed: Express have an uphill task to take top spot as the title race gears on | Express FC photo Babirye Amina)

Six-time Uganda Premier League Champions, Express FC has swayed a legion of followers into believing they are front runners for the StarTimes Uganda Premier League title.

Their reputation as a closely-knit group, characterized by a newfound level of competitiveness and drive under Wasswa Bbosa has rightly made them dreamers of a first league title since 2012.

But at the point where the title race is at its most delicate, where every point count and every slip up is punished, Express seem to have almost instantly hit the brakes and swerved off the road.

It has been quite disappointing and labouring to watch the Red Eagles in recent matches, especially after ramming through obstacles, and like a rugby fly-half, ride one challenge after the other for a large portion of the season.

At the final whistle on Wednesday, with Bright Stars winning 2-1 – the fact that they had to come from behind adds to the shock – many must have declared that’s that, their race is effectively over.

The Red Eagles lie third on the log, on 37 points, six points behind joint leaders Vipers SC and URA (whose goalless draw against SC Villa must have been celebrated around Wankulukuku).

That is a massive gap for them to catch up on, but their rivals have not fared any better this week with slip ups which still gives them a shimmer of hope starting with the crucial trip to St. Mary’s Stadium where they visit Vipers.

To be fair, I fear the worst for Express after their latest setback; even when I had anticipated that they were in for a shock at Kavumba. While it seems like a tall order now, the title is still by far within Express’ reach.

Bbosa has been involved in a scenario like this before, almost winning it with SC Villa in 2016 and then pushing Tooro United to a top-four finish in 2019.

There is no doubt on the quality he has to turn around a club’s fortunes, his style – though not popular with many produces the goods – and that is why you can bank on him to go all the way.

However, the ghosts of seasons past seem to have come back to haunt him even at the Betway Muteesa II Stadium – a promising season only to end up in disappointment. But he should know better this time around.

Now is the moment that will determine how the Express folklore remembers him. This is when he should earn his money and prove that he is not a nearly man starting with the Friday’s trip to Kitende.

Two points from a possible nine is worrying, but it is not a disaster, and Bbosa should know better that such barren periods were meant to happen eventually and he must have a plan already.

Express’ problem is not tactical because it is hard to find a game where they have been utterly outsmarted and neither is it about the physical shape of the team. Yes, the intensity must have dropped a bit, but at this stage in the season who still carries loads of energy anyway?

Bbosa must re-condition the mentality and attitude of his players because a title race can be so draining on the mental aptitude of players especially that they have not been at those levels recently.

A team retreat at the start of the season helped improve mentality and bred togetherness within the group but with three days in-between games, it is hard to find space to enjoy sand in the toe moments.

Bbosa’s biggest attribute is his man-management and clarity in delivering his ideas but crucially he also needs to reconsider some of his decisions recently and fully utilize his arsenal.

Express has heavily relied on defensive solidity and fast counter-attacks through Godfrey Lwesibawa, Eric Kambale and Charles Musiige. Teams are learning to counter that by allowing them to have more of the ball where they seem to struggle.

Not that they are short of players who can affect a game against sitting opponents but Bbosa that is not his way. He needs to show more trust in Muzamir Mutyaba instead of playing Musiige out of his best position.

Mutyaba arguably their best creative brain has played 12 times this season and has largely as a substitute starting only one game and playing more than 45 minutes on one occasion.

Other players who could provide different dynamics in attack like Frank Ssenyondo, Faizal Ssekyanzi, and Ivan Mayanja have been frozen out of the team playing a combined 186 minutes all season long.

Sadly, injuries have also disrupted their plans, a recent suspension to defensive kingpin Murushid Juuko revealing cracks at the back while injuries to key players like Abel Eturude and George Ssenkaaba seem to have come back to bite.

Juuko should be available for their next game as Express prepare for the most crucial fortnight of their season. Bbosa takes his side to the St. Mary’s Stadium to face direct rivals Vipers SC on Friday, in a game where they must give their all.

That is followed by home duels against Onduparaka and Police FC before they visit Kyetume. Quite winnable games for Express, and crucially, they must do.

Vipers face KCCA, URA and Villa after home games against Express and struggling MYDA. URA plays Bright Stars, Onduparaka, Mbarara City in their next three games.

URA face winnable fixtures as well, but do not read easily into that. The Tax Collectors picked up just five points against the same opponents, while games against URA, KCCA, Villa and Express are always unpredictable.

Vipers and URA admittedly hold the advantage over the pack, but, Express certainly remain outsiders. They have earned their current league position. They must not be underestimated; at least not now.  

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