Following Uganda’s strong start to the Africa Cup of Nations—a 2-0 victory over the Democratic Republic of Congo—Kenya, Cecafa’s second strongest representative, will have been determined to have made an impact of their own.
Admittedly, a showdown with Algeria represented a sterner test than the DRC, but this Harambee Stars side have already demonstrated—against Ghana in qualifying—that they can hold their own, and defeat, much stronger sides and more prestigious players when the wind is with them.
Certainly, Kenya were underdogs against a Fennecs side boasting Manchester City’s double-winner Riyad Mahrez as the most prominent of a plethora of star names, but there were reasons for optimism…particularly considering they have an East African derby with Tanzania to come and an ideal opportunity for three points.
There were encouraging signs in their display.
In Francis Kahata, who operated as a No. 10 behind Michael Olunga, they boast a creative central talent—a rare commodity in the Africa Cup of Nations—while Ayub Timbe and Omar Abud combined well down the left flank.
Joseph Okumu, despite being criticised by coach Sebastien Migne after the match, with the Frenchman accusing the new boy of finding the game “too tough”, offered presence in a patched-up defence that did well to limit Algeria to just two goals.
However, overall this was an underwhelming Kenya display—not as bad as Tanzania, perhaps, but a showing which was a world away from the composed, rugged display Uganda had given against DRC a day previously.
Migne’s selection decisions have generated increasing disquiet among Kenya supporters in recent weeks and months, and here, the coach’s decision-making again arguably came to the detriment of his team.
Kenya are not short of talented central midfielders, and so while Dennis Odhiambo has been a fine servant to the Stars and deserves respect as a veteran player, it was something of a surprise to see him partnering Victor Wanyama from the off.
While Odhiambo is tenacious and is a physical operator, theoretically allowing Wanyama more time to impose himself going forward, he had an outing to forget.
Had the 34-year-old produced a monstrous defensive showing, he could have been forgiven for a certain clunkiness in the heart of the park. However, he did not, winning zero aerial battles, making no interceptions and completing just one tackle all game.
It was one step too far for the Sofapaka man.
He clumsily handballed early on, appeared to be chasing shadows for much of the first half, and gave away four free kicks during the game—no one else conceded more.
It was ultimately Odhiambo that helped Algeria open the scoring as well, diving in carelessly as Youcef Atal darted into the box from the right flank, to bring down the OGC Nice man.
Until this point, Kenya’s limitations had been hinted at if not exposed, their deficiencies were recognised, but hadn’t yet proved costly.
Here, however, in this split second, the chasm that exists between a player who’s played the entirety of his career in southern Africa, and a player who's one of Ligue 1’s brightest talents, was magnified in Kenya’s biggest game in a generation.
These are the fine lines that, if the chips fall as they did, become chasms, and at this moment in time, fate was not on Odhiambo’s side.
Yet why was he starting in the first place.
Ismael Athuman, while slow in possession at times, would hardly have performed worse than the old-timer, while Johanna Omolo—introduced for Odhiambo with 19 minutes to play—was an immediate improvement.
Ismael Athuman looking mighty relaxed for a player who'll have to go up against Senegal and Algeria in the Nations Cup group stage.— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 20, 2019
Could the Hispano-Kenyan anchorman be a key asset for the @harambee__stars in Egypt?@Football_Kenya pic.twitter.com/ZNXGMKo6mJ
He offered Kenya more control, was a strong presence, and had the vision to pick out a player ahead of him with three long-range passes during his cameo.
Omolo’s pass accuracy of 92.3% was the highest of any Kenya player bar Athuman (two passes), and he appeared unfazed by the quality of the opposition and the Stars’ deficit.
Was it any surprise, that a player who made 18 appearances in the Belgian top flight last season looked more at ease than Odhiambo?
Then, there’s the Teddy Akumu issue.
If I was @Football_Kenya @harambee__stars manager - which I’m not - Jesse Were and Anthony Akumu would have been definites in my #TotalAfcon2019 squad.— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 22, 2019
Each scored today as ZESCO United defeated Zanaco 4-1 to win the Absa Cup. pic.twitter.com/0hn1EceOlo
The ZESCO United midfielder found the net at the weekend as his side secured the Zambian Cup with a 4-1 victory over Zanaco.
Akumu has consistently excelled both domestically and in Caf competitions, yet wasn’t deemed good enough for the Stars’ final squad. So too Jesse Were, who also netted in ZESCO’s triumph.
Migne’s complaint—that the striker doesn’t score enough goals for the national side—may hold some ground, but does he really believe that Were—now top of ZESCO’s all-time top scorer list—doesn’t know how to find the net?
In fact, even in a non-scoring role, the 30-year-old will make life hard for his opposite number and be a handful regardless of their stature; could he not have had a role to play here.
Elsewhere, questions may be asked of Migne’s trust—verging in blind faith—in Patrick Matasi between the sticks.
Matasi has quality, but he isn’t enjoying the best of times for Kenya recently, with a critical error against Ghana in the qualifiers followed up by another howler in one of the East Africans’ pre-tournament matches.
Yet a lack of other viable alternatives—Farouk Shikalo and John Oyemba haven't been tested, while Boniface Oluoch appears to be in the coach’s bad books—has left Matasi as the only realistic option.
Against Algeria there were jitters; he was nervy early on as Youcef Belaili shot right at him, and later came for a cross and missed the ball completely, before watching on relieved as Baghdad Bounedjah headed harmlessly over the bar.
He improved in the second half, but considering this is a defence shorn of some of its more assured campaigners—Brian Mandela and Joash Onyango—they truly need an authoritative, confident stopper behind them.
Is Matasi that man?
Migne may have been unhappy with Okumu after the game, but realistically, the Real Monarchs man was his only viable choice alongside Musa Mohammed, who appeared panicked when up against Bounedjah.
There were calls for David Owino, but for all of his tenacity, he doesn’t have the stature to keep Algeria’s powerful centre-forward at bay, and may struggle against Senegal’s forceful attackers too.
Okumu won as many headers (three) as Mohammed, saw much more of the ball, completed two tackles (second only to Wanyama), and made a game-high seven clearances.
Migne wasn’t happy, but it’s an opinion that betrays him, and Okumu—one of the better performers in this unconvincing display—would be unlucky to lose out to Onyango for the next match.