•Kenya will be making a return to the biannual tournament after 15 years in the cold
•The former Mathare United forward wants coach Sebastien Migne to maintain the team's cohesion that was widely used during the qualifiers and finished second behind Ghana.
For Harambee Stars to defy odds and advance past the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) for the first time, a paltry three facets have to be considered ahead and during the finals.
Kenya will be making a return to the biannual tournament after 15 years in the cold and according to the country’s all-time top scorer Dennis Oliech, the players who will make it to the final squad and the technical bench have their work cut out.
Oliech, who was part of the dreaded 2004 squad which last graced the continental showpiece has offered his school of thought on what the team should do to sail to the elusive knockout stages despite being paired against teams deemed as tournament favourites.
Stars, who have been at the finals in four separate editions, are squeezed in Pool ‘C’ during the draw conducted last week and are bound to come up against a Sadio Mane-led Senegal, star-studded Algeria and neighbours Tanzania when the tournament starts on June 21 to July 19 in Egypt.
Oliech, whose name has been widely discussed for possible inclusion in the final 23-man squad after pulling out of retirement to feature for Gor Mahia, reckons that Stars will glamour in Egypt should they avoid defeat in the opening fixture against Algeria on June 23.
The former Stars’ captain has warned that a defeat against Algeria will disorient the entire group stage matches and Kenya should strive to down the Desert Foxes who will heavily rely on the triumvirate of Manchester City, an English Premier League winning wing wizard Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi, who plies his trade in Portugal with FC Porto and Islam Slimani who turns out for Turkish giants Fenerbahce.
“The team should avoid losing the opening group stage match at all costs. A defeat will slice their chances of advancing and will attract more pressure on their side to fork out a win in the subsequent match and hence could bring confusion in the team. A win of any margin in the opening match regardless of the quality of the opponent will help the boys settle quickly and ease the pressure.”
The former Mathare United forward wants coach Sebastien Migne to maintain the team's cohesion that was widely used during the qualifiers and finished second behind Ghana.
Migne, who took over the reins in May last year, has depicted his faith and stuck to the crop of players whom he first summoned for the qualifier match against Ghana last year in September and Oliech has urged him to keep the squad intact and thrown in fresh legs for the finals if deemed necessary.
“It’s always prudent to stick to a winning team and the coach should not make any changes to the team which got the job done in the qualifiers. I am a striker and if I have played with my teammates for long, they know how to feed me; where to pass the ball, the nature of the pass and understand my style of play. The players we have in the team understand each other well and making too many changes will hurt the cohesion and will take longer to adapt while in Egypt and by the time they realise it will be late. The technical bench should make few and quality additions to the team.”
Oliech further challenged players, who will make it the cut, to rise above stage fright and make each and every chance created count. Oliech argues that it is by converting the chances that the country will make it to the knockout stages and has called upon the strikers to seize the moment and endeavour to put the ball past the line from the chances created.
“The players who will be selected should not succumb to stage fright for it’s just like any other football match. They should approach each match when relaxed and play according to instructions. At this stage, it is through scoring goals that one will make it to the next stage. What I can tell the team and especially the strikers is to seize the moment and make each and every chance count.”
Commenting on the 15-year long hiatus where Kenya had underwhelming qualification campaigns, Oliech blamed it on poor preparations, lack of age groups structures and lack of enough friendly matches for blame. The burly striker said the country sunk to regrettable lows after gracing the 2004 finals, thanks to the unending debacles in the then Kenya Football Federation and reoccurring sanctions from Fifa for government interference which curtailed their qualification.
“After 2004, we had serious off the field issues which made it difficult to constitute a team and guide it to the finals. We did not have sufficient friendly matches to gauge how prepared we were to play in the qualifiers yet we were coming up against teams which took the qualifiers seriously. We never had age group teams which would feed the senior teams and once a certain player hanged the boots or was unavailable, then his absence would affect the entire team. The governance in the past years has also not been keen to prepare the team to Afcon even though the players were ready and their talents were there for all to see.”
He, however, lauded the current leadership at the Football Kenya Federation for fixing the loopholes and introducing a number of changes which he said have played a massive role towards Stars qualification.
“For the last two to three years, we have witnessed changes as the national team has been playing friendlies during Fifa weeks and we have all age group, national teams. The handling of the senior team from kitting, funding and what entails running of the national team, has improved and its impact has been felt on the pitch.”