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Is in-form Olunga what Kenya’s Harambee Stars need in World Cup qualifiers?

Michael Olunga reacts after winning a friendly match between Qatar and Kenya in September 2023
Michael Olunga reacts after winning a friendly match between Qatar and Kenya in September 2023AFP
Five goals during the last series of friendly matches for Kenya as well as a goal and an assist for Al-Duhail in the Qatar Stars League left a section of Kenyans discussing the form of striker Michael Olunga (30) ahead of upcoming World Cup qualifying matches in June.

The towering Olunga was in great shape helping Kenya to their first trophy since 2017 as they defeated Zimbabwe 3-1 to clinch the Four-Nation tournament in Malawi on March 26th. He scored a hat-trick against the Warriors having grabbed a brace in the opening 4-0 victory against Malawi’s Flames.

On return to club duty, Olunga kept the fire burning, helping the Red Knights to their seventh victory of the campaign – a 3-1 win against table-toppers Al-Sadd - at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium on Friday, April 5th.

Almoez Ali had scored the opener for Duhail but Akraf Afif levelled matters for Sadd before Olunga drilled home the second and then set up Sultan Al Breik to wrap up the emphatic victory which pushed the Red Knights to position six on the 12-team table with 25 points, 18 fewer than Sadd, who kept their top spot.

Michael Olunga (R) in action with Al-Duhail
Michael Olunga (R) in action with Al-DuhailAFP

Olunga’s poor form raised eyebrows

At the start of the current campaign, Olunga’s form for club and country had raised eyebrows among Kenyan fans. His struggles for Harambee Stars saw him go for seven straight matches without finding the back of the net.

After scoring against Iran in a 2-1 friendly defeat at Azadi Sports Complex on March 28th, 2023, Olunga failed to score as Kenya defeated Pakistan 1-0, lost 1-0 against Mauritius, beat World Cup hosts Qatar 2-1 in a historic friendly, lost 1-0 against South Sudan, drew 2-2 against Russia and then lost 2-1 against Gabon in their Group F World Cup qualifying opener.

Despite the dry run, coach Engin Firat, while preparing Kenya for the game against the Panthers, defended Olunga from a section of fans, who had called on him to drop the player, insisting the former Gor Mahia striker was important for the country. “I will not dare put him out of my squad," he stated.

“If people don’t understand, they should go and play the PlayStation. Mike (Olunga) is so important to this country; he does big things to represent his country.

"For me, as a coach, I will never put Olunga out, there’s no player of his level in Kenya at the moment. Even if other people think we have players like Didier Drogba, I don't believe it,” Firat told reporters.

With pressure mounting, Olunga, who had become the subject of online criticism, responded to the attacks by saying: “I am not on social media so I don’t see anything people say about me there. Maybe whoever handles my social media accounts gets the pressure but for me, I don’t see anything.”

Olunga's recent numbers
Olunga's recent numbersFlashscore

Olunga later repaid Firat’s faith with a brace as Kenya recovered to hammer Seychelles 5-0 in their second group fixture on November 20th. After finally getting on the scoresheet, Firat reiterated his support for the player, who previously played for Kashiwa Reysol in Japan and on loan to Girona in LaLiga.

“Michael is one of the best players I have ever had in my coaching career and I am very happy to have him. He is very important to us as a leader. I am happy with his contribution to the team and how he helps the young players. He is a great leader for me and the team,” explained Firat.

Last December, Olunga suffered a setback after he picked up a hamstring injury during Duhail’s 2-1 win over Persepolis in an Asian Champions League match after coming on as a second-half substitute. Although he had only played for a few minutes before being forced off, Olunga scored the goal that made the difference in that game.

His absence saw Duhail struggle to win matches, with coach Christopher Galtier admitting they were missing the services of Olunga. “We still suffer from absences, the most prominent of which is the team striker Michael Olunga,” the former Paris Saint Germain manager told the club’s official website after losing one of their matches.

Is Olunga’s superb form what Kenya needs?

Since his double against the Pirates, Olunga seemed to have regained his scoring touch. He has so far scored 12 goals for Duhail in the league from 15 appearances with his first of the season coming in the 2-1 victory against Al Ahli.

Last season, Olunga scored 22 league goals for Duhail from 22 appearances, while in the previous campaign; he notched 24 goals from 20 matches to emerge as the top scorer.

Olunga's numbers in the current QSL campaign
Olunga's numbers in the current QSL campaignFlashscore

According to former Harambee Stars striker Elijah Onsika, Olunga’s current scoring form will be pivotal for the East African nation as they seek to qualify for the World Cup tournament for the first time in their history.

“A fully fit and happy Olunga gives Kenya the confidence they need when playing qualifying matches or even build-ups, he can lead by example, he has the nose to score goals, and whenever he scores, always expect another goal because he is a good finisher and deadly with the ball on a one-on-one situation,” Onsika, who played for Kenya in the late 80s, told Flashscore.

He added: “Every player faces worst times at some point and Olunga is not an exception, when he (Olunga) could not score for Kenya he was going through a bad spell which is understandable, for example, look at Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus, he is not having a good time with the team, his form has dipped and sometimes he could either start or come in as a substitute.”

Onsika further defended coach Firat’s decision to stick with Olunga during the difficult period by saying: “It is what he needed to do, stick with the player, give him the support and give him as many matches as possible to regain his confidence, he (Firat) did that very well and Olunga’s return to form should be credited to the coach because he did not fall to the fans’ demands to axe him from the squad.”

Football Kenya Federation (FKF) President Nick Mwendwa opined that those, who had called for the head of Olunga, were not being fair to a player he labelled as “top class” for the national team.

“It was not fair to call out Olunga on social media, he is one of our top-class players, and it is the reason we have him as the captain of the team, his leadership qualities are top-notch and he is a good player on the pitch, we know what Olunga can do and deserves every support,” Mwendwa told Flashscore.

With the Swallows and the Elephants Kenya’s next opponents in the World Cup qualifiers, Olunga will have another opportunity to silence his doubters for good with a superb display and help the nation pursue their ticket for the global competition.

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