By Tom Danicek
Honestly, they are just relieved to be here.
This is Kenya’s first Afcon since the early Dennis Oliech days which brought the long-suffering East African country their first CECAFA Cup triumph in almost 20 years (2002) coupled with the sole Afcon appearance since 1992 (2004). And just as Oliech seemingly never goes away (he now said that had he not gotten injured, it “would’ve been difficult” for the coach to “ignore him”), so does the sense of Kenyans being perennial underachievers whose infrastructure has seen little progress despite the Jubilee government’s lavish promises to build not one but five international standard stadiums.
Besides, let’s face it: not even the expansion may have been enough for Kenya to return to the African showpiece as the Harambee Stars undoubtedly benefitted from the suspension of Sierra Leone on top of everything (having lost to them away from home in June 2017 before the result got annulled late last year). Edging a goalless Ethiopia in the end really was a task not even Kenya could have screwed up.
Yet still, they managed to somehow underwhelm nonetheless, getting outshot 8-11 to the tune of a mere 35% ball possession on their way to a goalless draw in Bahir Dar. Make no mistake: this was anything but an exciting progression, and Kenyan fans who’ve grown understandably apathetic to the team’s miserable exploits over the past years are largely still not convinced one bit.
Then of course, the labouring in Ethiopia wasn’t too unexpected, as Kenya have struggled away from home since forever – putting any upset here in Egypt firmly in the “highly unlikely” bracket. Since bowing out from the 2004 Afcon with a 3-0 win over Burkina Faso in the Stallions’ last pre-Pitroipa appearance at the continental showcase, Kenya have appeared in a total of 31 qualifiers for which they had to travel. In that long span, they have incredibly rattled off a grand total of two wins – with both games coming in the first round that should always make for a formality; once against an archipelago smaller than the size of Nairobi (Seychelles, 2014 WCQ), and then again at the expense of another island country (Mauritius, 2018 WCQ).
Nothing overly elaborate here. Kenya are proponents of the standard 4-2-3-1 that turned into a sturdier 4-1-4-1 in both games against Ghana, the powerhouse of their qualifying group. Their best games are coincidentally those where they suck the life out of their opponent, something usually spearheaded by the combination of Victor Wanyama and veteran Dennis Odhiambo at the base of midfield. In possession, Kenya typically lack any creative spark (on average, they registered a mere 1,75 smart passes per game – meaning passes that cut lines and go between 2-3 opponents, according to Wyscout) and aren’t an adept counter-attacking outfit either, having failed to register a single shot off a counterattack in the qualifiers.
The starting striker Michael Olunga will hence be relied upon heavily. The beloved ex-Gor Mahia boy was once hailed as a rising start of LaLiga following a hat trick vs Las Palmas, and while he’s now “only” scoring goals in 2nd Japanese division, pretty much all attacking moves will definitely centre around him. The goalscorer nicknamed “Engineer” for his exploits at the Technical University of Kenya during his breakout 2015 season has bottomless stamina and good offensive instincts, can time his runs behind the line really well and normally embodies the only Kenyan capable of producing something out of nothing.
Coach Migné has stuck to his guns stubbornly, even ignoring winger Jesse Ware and his recent great form over in Zambia and internationally in the CAF Confederation Cup, and so the country now hopes this ultimately shows in supreme unity and teamwork which shall make Kenya hard to break down for Algeria especially who – for their part – struggled mightily to figure out Benin and the Gambia in three of their qualifiers. And for what it’s worth, Kenya indeed showed progress towards the end of the qualifiers, crushing Ethiopia at home (3-0) before limiting Ghana to just 0,68 expected goals against in Accra (0-1). Maybe, just maybe, they are only now reaching the apex of their capabilities. (Yeah, no, I don’t think so either.)
The Achilles Heel
The goals are almost certainly going to be hard to come by. Migné’s Kenya exemplarily follow the blueprint of 2015 Congo whose coaching staff he was also part of – they play physical brand of football, relying on a deep defensive block and happily conceding possession while aiming, or hoping, for lethal effectivity on attack. Problem is, Kenya don’t exactly have a Thievy Bifouma (unless you overrate Olunga a tad) or even a tall-short partnership he enjoyed up front with Ferébory Doré, and they are clueless on set pieces, another big weapon of Congo that sensationally topped the Group A in 2015 ahead of Burkina Faso and Gabon. In fact, Kenya failed so much to test the keeper from a free kick on a single occasion in the qualifiers.
For someone who’s helped Tottenham to appear in their first ever Champions League final and has played in Premier League for half a dozen years, Victor Wanyama enjoys a somewhat complicated, not-too-rosy relationship with the Harambee Stars followers. He’s not a flashy, prolific England-based star man that Senegalese or Egyptian fans get to enjoy, after all, he’s definitely not at his best when asked to chip in as a deep-lying playmaker for the national team, squandering quite a lot of passes, and some would rather harshly say he doesn’t even do enough for his country off the pitch. But that all takes nothing away from the fact we are talking about Kenya’s most experienced, positionally aware midfielder whose strength in the tackle and combativeness will be instrumental in breaking up other teams’ attacks and, dare I say, possibly even winning a game or two.
The Hipster’s Choice
He has turned up for Kenya as a left back, left winger and even a right back over the qualifiers and accounted for almost a whole third of Kenya’s shots against Ethiopia in the 3-0 win. Playing a high-octane style of football and dubbed “Marcelo” in his early days as an attacking fullback, Eric Ouma is sure to catch some attention in Egypt. He very quickly became the crowd darling at Gor Mahia and claimed the New Young Player of the Year Award in 2016 while also getting on the five-man shortlist for the Most Valuable Player award, both at the tender age of 20. He hasn’t yet reached the heights many foresaw for him, but he doesn’t turn 23 until September, so still has time, and this could be his big coming-of-age tournament.
Sébastien Migné is one of the relatively few European coaches under 50 calling Africa their managerial home, and he’s largely been a success for Kenya where the coaching standards are admittedly low with Bobby Williamson as their longest tenured coach since 1990. Migné himself inspired little confidence upon his arrival: he did serve as Claude Le Roy’s assistant at the remarkable 2015 Afcon where Congo reached quarter-finals after 15-year absence at the Cup… *pauses to get mad there’s no obvious candidate to hire Migné next as no one’s been missing out on Afcon ever since 2006*… but when given a chance to be the main man for the Congolese, he had to wait 7 games for his first win – and then he immediately quit citing poor working conditions (only to later see Kenyan FA struggle to repay three months’ worth of his wages). Yet, Migné’s Kenya was shortlisted for CAF National Team of the Year, so there goes any doubt about him.
This group will be very hard to navigate for Kenya and it’s difficult to see them earning more than three points. But if they prove to be able to shut the door on Algeria who have a rich history of struggling against defensive minded teams and starting slow (they’ve only won one opener in 10 attempts since winning the whole thing in 1990), anything can happen after. The key will be to avoid a defeat straight out of the gate.