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Will Michael ‘Engineer’ Olunga fit into Mario Mandzukic's shoes?

Last updated 9 days ago | By Rodgers Eshitemi

Harambee Stars players during an evening training session at 30 June Stadium in Cairo Egypt on June 29, 2019. Kenya is preparing for their 3rd Group C match of 32nd Edition of Total Africa Cup of Nations 2019 against Senegal. [Photo, Stafford Ondego]

Nobody ever thought that a Kenyan footballer would one day be called upon to fill the void left by a player of former Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic’s caliber.

But barely a week after the 34-year-old Croatian announced his departure from the Qatar giants Al Duhail SC, the club wasted no time in finding his perfect replacement; Kenya’s Michael ‘Engineer’ Olunga.

The former Juventus striker, who scored the winner for Croatia (2-1) against England in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, terminated his contract at Duhail last week after just six months with the club where he had only scored once in his five competitive matches.

Though Olunga made a losing debut on Tuesday night after Duhail lost 3-1 away to current Qatar Stars League leaders Al Sadd, going straight into the seven-time Qatar champions’ starting lineup hardly a day after completing his mega-money move from Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol, pointed at a player whose qualities are unmatched.  

Interestingly, former Gor Mahia and Djurgårdens IF forward will be donning jersey number 26 at Duhail coinciding with his current age.

Olunga, who has reportedly been offered a lucrative four-year deal by Sabri Lamouchi’s side, featured for 65 minutes against an Al Sadd team that includes the likes of former Arsenal midfield magician Santi Carzola and Algerian striker Baghdad Bounejah, before paving way for Khaled Mohamed.

Olunga in jersey 26 in the Al Duhail staring XI [Al Duhail - Twitter]

Kashiwa allowed their talisman to leave Japan after receiving an irresistible offer of about seven million Euros (Approximately Sh933 million) from Duhail. It remains to be seen if he will replicate his Japan form in Qatar.

Just like he spoilt Kenya’s chances at the 2019 Afcon finals in Egypt after scoring the first goal in Algeria’s 2-0 victory in the opening Group C match, Bounejah ruined Olunga’s debut when he bagged a hat-trick for the Xavi Hernández-trained side at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.

Al Moez Ali had given Olunga’s new club an early lead from the spot in the sixth minute only  for Bounejah to draw level eight minutes later before completing his hat trick in the second half (50th and 87th minutes).

The victory saw Al Sadd open an 11-point gap over the second-placed Duhail (27 points from 14 matches). Duhail will be seeking to bounce back to their winning ways when they travel to third-placed Qatar SC on Tuesday.

Croatia's forward Mario Mandzukic celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018. [AFP PHOTO, YURI CORTEZ]

Despite the result, it is evident that the Upper Hill alumnus has become one of the most revered players in the Asian football following his exploits in Japan that saw him claim the Most Valuable Player award and the golden boot award after scoring 28 goals in the J1 League last season.

In 2019, Olunga joined the growing list of the highest goal scorers in one match in the world when he banged eight goals in Kashiwa’s 13-1 emphatic victory over Kyoto Sanga in last year’s season-ender.

He finished the season with 27 league goals as Kashiwa were promoted back to the topflight football after winning the J2 League title.

Olunga had earned himself a cult hero status at Kashiwa following his remarkable scoring form and interaction with fans.

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