Can friendly matches help the Harambee Stars reach the Nations Cup?

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Can Stanley Okumbi's side keep their fine run of form going when they meet the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda this week?

The last time Kenya made it to Africa Cup of Nation finals, Mwai Kibaki was the country's President and Najib Balala was Minister for Sports.

Jacob ’Ghost’ Mulee, now a respected television and radio pundit, was the national team's head coach, while Uhuru Kenyatta - the country's current President - was still smarting from his failed bid to rule the country after an embarrassing defeat in the 2002 general elections.

That's now some 13 odd years ago, and while much has changed, the Harambee Stars are yet to end their exile from the continental high table, and their wait for a return to a first Nations Cup since 2004 continues. 

Former Harambee Stars coach Jacob 'Ghost' Mulee commentating at on-goingCecafa Cup

Jacob ’Ghost’ Mulee | The last man to guide Kenya at the Afcon

The Harambee Stars have now failed to qualify for Africa's premier sporting showpiece in six attempts during that time, with 15 different coaches handle the side.

The inability to qualify could be down to a number of reasons, especially politicking and a lack of proper planning leading to poor preparations in the build-up to qualification campaigns.

This is why the current administration, led by President Nick Mwendwa, have perhaps opted to do things differently ahead of both the 2018 Africa Nations Championships and the 2019 Africa Nations Cup qualifiers.

The first change led to the hiring of a youthful local-based technical bench, whilst the next was to organize several friendly matches in order to “fine tune the team ahead of these two assignments," according to Mwendwa.

Stanley Okumbi with the squad at Machakos Stadium

The Harambee Stars preparing for their upcoming friendlies

This habit isn't limited to the senior national team, as the U-20 team have also tested themselves against the likes of Afcon-bound Senegal and Egypt recently, coming out second best. The senior team have fared much better and, under the tutelage of Stanley Okumbi, have remained unbeaten in six high-profile friendlies over the past seven months.

The Stars drew 0-0 away to Uganda and went on to beat the Democartic Republic of Congo 1-0 in Kinshasa.

The national side then posted 1-1 draws at home against Sudan and Tanzania before dispatching Liberia and Mozambique 1-0 each.

“The idea is to have the players get used to each other," Okumbi said after the victory over Mozambique in November. "To have a team in place, to prepare the squad and enable it be used to competing against some of the established teams on the continent."

FKF President Nick Mwendwa

“Friendlies are the best way to prepare teams," Mulee added, "especially now that we have experienced and talented players like (Victor) Wanyama, Michael (Olunga) and (Jesse) Were, we need to offer them as many games as possible to prepare them physically and mentally. Thereafter we have a chance (to qualify)."

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This week's friendlies, against Uganda's Cranes and the Leopards of the DRC this Thursday and Sunday respectively, at Machakos County Stadium, will be the last opportunity for Okumbi to see his team and assess his options ahead of the beginning of Afcon qualifying campaign, which starts against Sierra Leone in Freetown in June.

Kenya's group also contains Ghana and Ethiopia, and at least one team from this lot is guaranteed to play in Cameroon in two years' time.

Okumbi will be desperate to try some new options and continue working with the various units within his side, but the most important thing, surely, will be for Kenya to keep their undefeated streak going and head into the qualifiers with momentum behind them.

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