By James Magayi
A charged Kenya national football team will take to the 30 June Stadium in Cairo, Egypt bullish in their quest to upstage tournament favourites Senegal and book a last 16 berth in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2019.
Intra tournament permutations cloud the 10pm kick-off as four third-placed teams from the six groups progress in the competition.
That renders the coveted knockout round within reach for Harambee Stars who will seal their slot with a draw against Senegal’s Lions of Teranga.
Harambee Stars could have confirmed their place in the round of 16 yesterday had Burundi beat Guinea and DR Congo shared the spoils with Zimbabwe last night.
Stars’ dream result in Groups A and B would have automatically dumped third-placed teams in those groups leaving qualifying chances to the remaining groups.
Best third placed
Focus has shifted from intra group duels as every third-placed team is looking at what the other groups have amassed in terms of points and goals.
Group F has a potential of not producing three teams as the current third-placed team Benin, face Cameroon in a tricky final fixture.
The defending champions lead the group on four points trailed by Ghana and Benin on two while Guinea-Bissau are fourth with a single point.
Cameroon therefore, need maximum points to not just ensure qualification but seal the top spot.
The gulf in class may not be much but Cameroon are odds on favourites to beat Benin.
That outcome will knock out Group F from the running to produce a worthy third-placed team to progress in the AFCON 2019.
By the time of going to press Kenya sat second in the order of third-placed teams with three points same as South Africa who boast of a better goal difference.
Benin and Angola follow closely on two points with Guinea and Zimbabwe sitting just outside the qualifying zone with a point each.
Kenya have their fate in their own hands and could ensure progress by getting a result against Senegal.
Sebastien Migne, the Frenchman in charge of Harambee Stars must, however, fortify his back line to stop the West Africans.
Having proven a leaky defense to be Stars’ achilles heel, Migne needs to be bold in selection.
Only Philemon Otieno has played right-back consistently in the last 18 months.
Dropping him to the bench for center-half David Owino was calamitous against Tanzania. Otieno is not the most solid of right backs but Owino was a catastrophe.
Upfront, Francis Kahata has proven beyond doubt that he cannot cut it at the 32nd edition of Afcon.
Migne needs to start with Johanna Omolo beside skipper Victor Wanyama and stick Eric Johanna behind Michael Olunga. That way Kenya’s defence will begin with their strikers.
KENYA VS SENEGAL: KEY BATTLES
Koulibaly vs Olunga
The Napoli center-half has marshaled the Senegal defence well especially after long-term partner Salif Sane picked an injury in the AFCON 2019 opening match against Tanzania.
With Sane injured, coach Aliou Cisse opted for Cheikhou Kouyaté, a midfielder, to play alongside Koulibaly and this proved to be a tall order against the Algerians as he was constantly caught out of position.
Michael Olunga, who scored twice against Tanzania, plays better with his back to goal and it will be interesting to see how Koulibaly tracks his movement.
Mane vs Okumu
Joseph Oukumu was not even supposed to be starting games at Afcon but with Brian Mandela and Joash Onyango injured, the US-based defender was drafted into the team and he has not disappointed.
Nicknamed ‘Crouch’ due to his big size, Okumu was the only player to receive positive reviews after the 2-0 loss to Algeria and was impressive again against Tanzania.
His biggest test, however, comes tonight when he faces Senegal’s danger man Sadio Mane.
The EPL Golden Boot winner was not impressive against Algeria and is hungry to open his Afcon account. Okumu will be tasked with ensuring that does not happen.
Wanyama vs N’Diaye
Alfred N’Diaye is Senegal’s answer to Victor Wanyama. The Villareal midfielder has been the one shielding the Senegalese defence that has only conceded one goal.
Unlike Wanyama, he goes about his business quietly and rarely throws himself into tackles.
But with the physical Wanyama his next opponent, that might have to change as the Kenyan captain is never afraid to put in a foot whenever he deems it fit.