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Mutai to lead Kenya's charge

PUNTA UMBRIA, Spain, March 18- In this part of the world, football is the main sports fix but on Sunday, some of the attention will be devoted to athletics as Spain hosts its third IAAF World Cross Country Championships after Madrid (1981) and Amorebieta (1993) editions.

The resort region of Punta Umbria will welcome 75 nations battling for a share of 24 medals on offer but as far as the World Cross is concerned, only two countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, the two East African distance running adversaries hold sway.

According to IAAF statisticians, Kenya has won a total of 111 team titles since the advent of what was until last year, an annual affair while Ethiopia have garned 113.

The 39th edition in Punta Umbria will be a special event for the bitter rivals since it will be the first biennial edition and with the next match-up being in 2013, Kenya are raring to usher in the new format in roaring fashion as they closed the last annual affair in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

There, Kenya made history by sweeping all gold medals available for individual and team competitions. Needless to say, the country’s national anthem was the only one played, ringing out eight times!

On Sunday, head coach David Letting and his charges are gearing for a similar outcome but even the most optimistic among Team Kenya’s ranks know it will not be one way traffic.

Senior men 12km

Defending champion, Joseph Ebuya, who broke Kenya’s decade long drought of the Holy Grail in cross country running will watch this event from the sidelines after his bid to become the first man since Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele to hold on to the crown ended at the February 19 selection event at Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens.

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In his absence, marathoner Geoffrey Mutai, who commanded the heights at the Kenyan Trials has been installed as his most likely successor. The Rotterdam and Berlin marathon runner-up who blasted to 2:04:55 in the former to become the sixth fastest ultimate distance runner of all time, has crafted a fearsome resume coming to Spain after crushing the field at Uhuru Gardens.

Overall team captain, Matthew Kisorio, Mombasa 2007 World Cross silver winner, Vincent Chepkok, World Cross veteran, Hosea Mwok Macharinyang, last year’s eighth finisher, Paul Tanui and debutant Philemon Rono complete the Kenyan brigade tipped to secure the team title in this race.

Double Commonwealth champion, Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro, who silenced the Kenyan challenge in Delhi and won bronze in Poland, Ethiopia’s Hunegaw Mesfin who topped the field at his nation’s Trials in addition to Eritrea’s silver medallist Teklemariam Medhin, carry the biggest threat for the Kenyans.   

Senior women 8km

World 10000m track champion, Linet Masai is the sentimental favourite having been beaten to gold by compatriots Florence Kiplagat (2009) and Emily Chebet (last year) with the finish in sight. Now in her fourth straight World Cross having won junior gold in 2007 and senior bronze a year later, no one would begrudge the Mount Elgon runner glory on Sunday but she needs to keep fellow Kenyans in check.

Fellow Berlin champion over 5000m, Vivian Cheruiyot, poses her biggest obstacle since she is renowned for a vicious finishing kick, which Masai has lacked in Amman and Bydgoszcz. Cheruiyot, whose only other senior World Cross outing returned eighth in Mombasa, has promised to be among the medals on Sunday and after adding the Commonwealth and African gold medals in her chosen race since Berlin, few would bet against her assertion.

Lineth Chepkurui, fourth (senior women) last year, Sylvia Kibet, the 5000m silver winner in Berlin and Delhi, 2006 World Cross silver winner (discontinued short race), Priscah Jepleting and Fukuoka 2006 World Cross junior champion, Pauline Korikwiang complete Kenya’s line-up in what coach Letting has described as “The strongest senior women team we have ever had.”

Across the enemy lines lies the ever present Ethiopian, Meselech Melkamu who has won 16 World Cross medals since she made her debut in the competition in 2003. She is yet to win gold in this event, having taken three bronze medals at previous editions and this could be her year.

Since announcing her entry to the cream of women distance running with surprise 5000m bronze in Berlin, Wude Ayalew is shaping up to be a potent runner in Ethiopia’s ranks and Punta Umbria gives her another platform to stamp her credetials.

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Three-time gold medallist, Tirunesh Dibaba is absent but her younger sister, Genzebe will make her senior bow with the brief of returning the top medal to their household.

Junior men 8km

Will Isaiah Kiplangat Koech fulfill his overwhelming favourite role on Sunday? This is the question doing rounds here with another blazing performance from the freshly minted World Indoor junior record holder who won the Kenyan trials emphatically anticipated.

In Poland, the ‘Chairman’ as Koech is known, returned fourth but since then, he has almost been untouchable in age group running. His friend, Justine Koech and Geoffrey Kipsang, who missed the intial flight to Spain after a visa hitch are considered his chief rivals for the top medal.

Tesfaye Cheru, who won the Ethiopian trials will lead the challenge on behalf of the rest of the world but another Kenyan perfect ten score (1-2-3-4 finish) as well as the 13th straight team title is not beyond the the red, green and black clad runners.

Junior women 6km

Without Mercy Cherono, the defending champion and silver winner in 2009 who graduated to senior ranks with success at the March 6 Africa Cross Country Championships in Cape Town, Bydgoszcz silver winner, Purity Cherotich and Faith Chepng’etich who returned fourth in Poland lead the charge for Kenya.

Debutant Janet Kisia, who won at the Trials is also in with a shout.

Ethiopia will parade Genet Yalew (fifth) and Emebet Anteneh (sixth) from Poland but Kenya still holds the edge.

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