When Yaya Toure picked the ball that was to determine the fourth team in Group C, many local football enthusiasts silently hoped for a manageable opponent. It was bound to be Cameroon, Tunisia, Morocco or Senegal who were all in Pot 1 alongside hosts Egypt. The other Pot 1 team, Nigeria, had already been drawn into Group B.
As the lanky figure of the former Manchester City star unwrapped the piece of paper, suspense grew to unprecedented heights in Kenya.
After an hour of entertainment and speeches at the historic Egyptian pyramids, the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations draw proper finally kicked off with former Ghanaian international Anthony Baffoe running the show in his capacity as Deputy General Secretary in-charge of Football and Development at the Confederation of African Football (Caf).
Toure, a four-time African footballer of the year and, was among African football legends invited by Caf to conduct the draw alongside Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf, Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan and Cameroon’s Rigobert Song.
The former Ivory Coast skipper held the piece paper firmly for all to see and read the name written therein: Senegal! Wait, what? Yes, it was the Lions of Teranga!
Up until that point, Harambee Stars fans considered the draw “fair” given that they had been pooled with neighbours Tanzania and Algeria. With only the top two teams in each of the six groups set to secure automatic qualification to the round of 16, Kenyans believed Sebastien Migne’s charges have a chance of making it to the first knock out round.
While the inclusion of Senegal means the West Africans start as favourites, Kenya now have to battle Algeria for second place with the minimum target being at least six points to book an automatic slot in the last 16.
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane will definitely be the man to watch in Aliou Cisse’s set up that is littered with quality in every department. The England based pair of Chiekhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye will battle for territorial advantage with Kenya’s midfield duo of Dennis Odhiambo and skipper Victor Wanyama.
Upfront, Cisse will rely on the Ligue 1 trio of Ismaila Sarr, M’Baye Niang and Moussa Konate for goals and as usual Inter Milan forward Keita Balde will carry his bag of tricks and flair.
“Senegal are favourites to proceed as winners. They have an extraordinary group of players with a lot of experience in Europe. Algeria could offer competition but I see Senegal emerging first,” Diouf, a member of the 2002 dream team, offered when asked to give his prediction of who would proceed from the group.
It is no doubt that Senegal will be the team to beat in Group C but the fact that Kenya start as underdogs could work perfectly for Migne. During the qualification phase, the French man used the same strategy to upset Ghana in Nairobi and rekindle Kenya’s for qualifying for the Cup of Nations for the first time in 15 years.
In his brief stint at the national team, three things have stood out. He is a good schemer, risk taker and he likes his game plan executed to the latter. Just like Claude Le Roy, Migne has used big games to announce himself to African football as head coach after spending close to seven years under the wings of his mentor.
Against the Black Stars in Kasarani, he produced a game-changer in Group F. The 1-0 win, courtesy of Nicholas Opoku’s own goal, changed the whole dynamics of the qualifiers. He almost orchestrated another tactical master piece in the return leg in Accra but he was undone by Caleb Ekuban’s goal with only seven minutes left.
The Ayew brothers, Newcastle’s Christian Atsu, John Boye of Metz, Alaves’ Mubarak Wakaso and Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey were all in that Black Stars squad that laboured to edge Kenya at home. If Migne needs encouragement in the last Group C match against a star-studded Senegal he needs to look no further than the 1-0 loss to Ghana last month.
But it is the opener against Algeria that will shape Kenya’s fate. He will need his charges to be as disciplined as they were in Bahir Dar (0-0) and ruthless as they were at Kasarani (3-0) against the Walya Antelopes of Ethiopia. Both results, a draw in Addis and a win in Nairobi, all but confirmed Kenya’s place in the Cup of Nations.
Victory or even a draw against the Desert Foxes will be a good start for Kenya. In the previous edition, Algeria bowed out at the group stage after finishing third in Group B with only two points. A 2-2 draw against minnows Zimbabwe in the opener meant they complicated their chances. Senegal went ahead to win the group with Tunisia finishing second to proceed to the quarters.
The Desert Foxes are however not short of quality. Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez obviously comes to mind but it’s Al Sadd’s Baghdad Bounedjah who carries the biggest attacking threat for the North Africans. The 27-year-old scored 58 goals last year to become the highest scorer in all competitions ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
He scored thrice in the qualifiers making him a prime target for Brian Mandela and Musa Mohammed to police mark. Turkey based Islam Slimani, Yassine Benzia (Fenerbahce) and Sofiane Feghouli (Galatasaray) could be deployed as the supporting cast in attack but it’s Porto’s Yacine Brahimi who makes the Algerians tick.
Under Djamel Belmadi, Brahimi enjoys a lot of freedom in the opponent’s final third and Migne has to ensure he is denied space and time to create. Wanyama thrives in such tasks and on June 23 Migne will need his skipper to be at his destructive best; a role he has performed with so much ease for Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham and Southampton.
However, to win matches Harambee Stars will need Michael Olunga to rise to the occasion like he has done previously. The likes of Eric Johanna, Francis Kahata and Ayub Timbe will have to compliment his efforts. Togo, Benin and Gambia all scored against Algeria in the qualifiers and further encouragement could be derived from the fact that Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Senegal all stung Algeria twice in Gabon 2017.
History also favours Kenya. The last time these two sides met in 1996, Kenya emerged 3-2 aggregate winners in a two-leg 1998 pre-World Cup qualifier. A 20-year-old Matthew “Ottamax” Owino was in goal as Vincent Kwarula, Musa Otieno and Henry Motego got the goals in the 3-1 first leg win.
Allan Odhiambo and Francis Oduor saw red in the return leg as Kenya lost 1-0 but the job had been done. Coach Vojoslav “Vojo” Gordasevic made history by taking Kenya to the group stages of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time.
Migne has already inked his name in Kenya’s football history books but just like a young Le Roy, he is a man on a mission here in Africa. Silently, he knows he has the quality to be the dark horse in this tournament and he wants to build his profile.
By proceeding to the last 16, he will draw the attention of more established African football nations. Losing against Tanzania will of course be suicidal.
Migne has shown, at least in the qualifiers, that he knows how to navigate past must-win situations despite the quality of the opponent.
Three points against Taifa Stars and a draw/win against Algeria will set up a cracker against Senegal on July 1. When the whole world will be watching, Migne could stage another upset in his fledgling career and Harambee Stars could end up topping Group C.
As Lupita Nyong’o says: “Our dreams are valid.” Roho juu Harambee Stars!