Kenya can dream of Africa Cup of Nations after Ghana win
Kenya revived her chances of qualifying for the 2019 Africa Nations Cup in Cameroon after an unexpected 1-0 victory over 2017 semi-finalists Ghana in Nairobi on Saturday.
It was the first time that the Harambee Stars had defeated the Black Stars in a competitive fixture, and only their second ever win against the West African giants since a friendly triumph in 2003.
Not only did Kenya, whose last Africa Cup of Nations appearance was in 2004, beat the four-time African champions, but they also did so with 10 men, following the dismissal of defender Joash Onyango just after the hour mark.
The win was achieved despite less-than-stellar preparation, with coach Sebastien Migne having to make do without a litany of key players - including captain Victor Wanyama, who failed to show up due to fitness issues.
Wanyama's assistant David Owino also picked an injury in training and did not participate, while Ayub Timbe and Brian Mandela were both suspended.
Add to this that the contest was Migne's first competitive match since his appointment as Paul Put's replacement in May 2018, and the odds were stacked against Kenya heading in.
However, Kenya still delivered a strong showing and, buoyed by the 20,000-strong fanbase at the Kasarani Stadium, secured a 1-0 triumph following Nicholas Opoku's 40th-minute own goal.
It was one of the biggest results of the weekend of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, and left supporters hoping for more.
Indeed, this fixture did feel like it could have been the first step towards greater success for the East Africans.
The team that played against Ghana is relatively young, and it's one that can be moulded and developed for the future.
Veterans Dennis Odhiambo and Jockins Atudo, who came on as a second-half sub, are the only players who are nearing the sunset of their careers, while starters Eric Johana, Michael Olunga, Ovella Ochieng and Ismael Gonzalez are all in their early 20s.
These players should form the heart of the new team under Migne, and will complement the other starters - Musa Mohamed, Patrick Matasi, Abud Omar, Onyango, Teddy Akumu - who are all in their prime.
Unlike Kenya's previous coaches, Migne isn't shying away from making the bold decisions, and it's another reason why the Harambee Stars can hope for progress under his stewardship.
The faith in youth, particularly for such a major fixture, is a positive move and suggests that the French coach can oversee the kind of smooth transition that has evaded the national side in the past.
He isn't afraid to plump for local players ahead of their foreign-based counterparts.
For example, five of the players who started against Ghana play in the Kenyan Premier League, a high proportion considering how things have typically been for the Harambee Stars.
Francis Kahata, Philemon Otieno, Matasi, Onyango and Odhiambo were all handed starts at the expense of mainstays like foreign-based duo Akumu and Jesse Were, as Migne showed clear faith in the pick of the KPL.
Johanna Omolo of Cercle Brugge and David Ochieng, who plays for Swedish side, Brommapojkarna, were also overlooked for the starting XI, even though they'd have been guaranteed starters in the past.
If Migne had opted to drop the big names and hadn't secured a result, his gamble would have been scrutinised, but on this occasion, his risky decision came off.
He's also taken a hardline approach when faced with lax discipline, and it's a strategy which boosts the perception of the squad's professionalism.
Three players snubbed national-team call-ups, and Migne made it clear that would not tolerate such behaviour in the future.
George Odhiambo, Allan Wanga and Boniface Oluoch failed to report to camp, and during his presser, the Frenchman made it clear that under him "things will be done differently".
It was a bold statement of intent, and his bullishness paid off against the Black Stars.
His emphasis on discipline should have a lasting impact in the team; cases of indiscipline have gone unpunished in the past, but Migne showed he will take no prisoners by even slamming skipper Wanyama for not showing up despite his fitness issues.
Moving forward, Kenya will also be boosted by the returns of Big Vic and Timbe.
Wanyama is a mainstay in Stars midfield while speedy Timbe is Kenya's first-choice right winger. The two returning to the team will strengthen the Stars further and give coach Migne further quality options.
Also, Gor Mahia's growth in continental football is also another boost for the team .
They were unlucky not to qualify for the CAF Confederation Cup quarter finals, and three of their team duly started against Ghana. Gor's success in the continent under Dylan Kerr can have a direct impact on the Stars' quality under Migne.
Against Ghana, the support was also a major boost for Kenya and should help moving forward. The 12th man played a big role in steering the team to the win, and this was in sharp contrast to what has been the norm in recent years, where the Stars failed to attract even 3,000 fans to the stadium.
The win over Ghana will certainly help win the confidence of the fans back, and their presence in the stadium will be key in the team's success at home.
Finally, Migne also looks to have boosted the Stars' mental toughness.
In the past, an incident like Onyango's sending off would see a team crumble, as was the case against Sierra Leone in the first qualifier.
However, against Ghana, despite being a man down for over half an hour, the visitors were frustrated. They showed excellent mental strength, thwarting endless Ghana attacks, and this will serve them well going forward.
The early evidence suggests that Migne and Kenya could be a really promising marriage, and Harambee Stars can realistically hope that it will lead all the way to the Africa Cup of Nations.