Kenya head into the upcoming African Cup of Nations with their expectations firmly grounded. After all, it’s the first time they’ve qualified since 2004 and only the sixth time they’ve ever reached the finals. On each of their past journeys they’ve been sent home in the group stage but this time round it’s possible they’ll achieve the unthinkable and get through to the knockout rounds – if that happens then Kenya fans will celebrate as wildly as the Egyptians will if they lift the trophy.
The team qualified from group F behind Ghana and whilst some will see the fact that Sierra Leone were disqualified, meant they only had to finish ahead of one other team – Ethiopia – that doesn’t tell the whole story. The outright betting puts Kenya to the back of the pack, but their group opponents shouldn’t underestimate what they’re capable of. Ghana are placed as second favourites behind the tournament hosts, Egypt, and they were on the receiving end of Kenya’s best performance in qualifying – a 1-0 victory for Sebastien Migne’s men, which proves this group will not be a two-horse race.
Kenya find themselves in a tough group but with a little smile from lady luck, they are more than able to sneak through into the next phase. Their campaign gets off to a difficult start as they face Algeria in the 30 June Stadium – a 30,000 capacity arena in Cairo – where they’ll be huge underdogs. that’s a label that will suit the Harambee Stars though and means there will be little pressure on their shoulders.
As opposed to Algeria whose fans will expect nothing less than three points – that’s what happens if you have players like Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi in your team. If Kenya avoid defeat, they’ll move into the second game – a very winnable fixture – against Tanzania, who are only featuring at the finals for a second time in their history with it all to play for. The one to avoid in the squad is Samatta, a striker who plays for Genk in Belgium and this season scored 23 goals in the Jupiler Pro League won the competition’s Golden Shoe.
The final fixture is against Senegal; remarkably, given this is only the sixth African Cup of Nations Kenya have qualified for, it will be the fourth time they’ve faced Senegal in the competition. Senegal may well prove the toughest match of the lot as their squad is full of players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues.
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane has just won the Champions League, so he will sure be extra motivated to make a strong display in this tournament. Plus, Napoli centre back Kalidou Koulibaly, who is one of the main targets for Premier League teams this summer, is another standout player. It’s highly likely Migne will need to set his men up to at least take a point to steer them out of the group.
Migne will aim to contain the likes of Algeria and Senegal – whilst a more offensive game plan will be used in the other game – before looking to pinch something at the other end, whether it be a wonder strike or fortuitous deflection. In terms of a line up, Tottenham midfielder and Champions League runner up, Victor Wanyama will wear the captain’s armband and be given the duty of marshalling the midfield.
Providing some flair in the wide positions is likely to be Chris Mbamba, who actually represented Sweden at youth level. Mbamba was born in Zimbabwe but has a Kenyan mother and a Namibian father. The youngster was awarded his passport in February and has expressed his desire to play for the national team.
Mbamba plays for Swedish club Oskarshamns and has pace to burn, which will suit Kenya’s counter attacking tactics in the matches where they’ll have less possession. In attack, the responsibility will fall to Michael Olunga to convert any chances that come his way. Olunga is playing in Japan and has a decent record on the international stage with, roughly, a goal every other match.
What lays ahead won’t be easy for the Stars and progress to the second round will rightly be regarded as a shock, due to the current power rankings. However, Migne has an experienced squad who are well drilled and if the stars align, they could just make it through. If they do, then these players will go down in Kenyan history but, either way, let’s have a party and enjoy it.