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Uphill task for Stars despite win

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 28- Saturday’s victory over Angola in their 2012 Africa Nations Cup qualifier at Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium lifted the gloom that has enveloped national football team, Harambee Stars, for almost two years.

The hard fought win, achieved by an 87th minute blast from the right boot of Inter Milan midfielder, MacDonald Mariga, sparked Kenya’s spluttering campaign to seal a ticket in the Equatorial Guinea/Gabon Nations Cup to life- or did it?

First Mariga, who incidentally scored the winning goal when Kenya last tasted victory at a qualifier in a 2-1 beating of Mozambique in the only win at the botched effort to play in last year’s World Cup and Nations Cup on June 20, 2009, got himself needlessly sent off for a second yellow as he celebrated his wonder strike.

“It was a stupid thing for me to do. At that moment, I forgot I had the yellow card and I’m very disappointed but I believe there are capable players to replace me in our next match. The referee was however, not fair since the first yellow card he gave me was not deserved,” the midfielder who also grazed the bar with another rasping deflected effort minutes before his goal told reporters.

The red card rules out Mariga, who is fast becoming his country’s talisman, out of the Angola away match and his absence will be a huge blow for team.

“It is sad that we lost our partner Mariga and it is upon us to perform for him in the next match. He must travel with us for moral support in our next game and I promise to score for him,” team captain, Dennis Oliech, Stars’ other important cog said.

Secondly, as Kenyans were celebrating their victory against the unfortunate Palancas Negras who truth be told, deserved at least a point for their polished first half display, neighbours and bitter rivals Uganda were busy beating Guinea Bissau 1-0 away to take command of Group J.

Success achieved through a veteran David Obua strike moved the Cranes, who survived a penalty, to seven points, three clear of Stars and after navigating tricky away ties to Bissau and Nairobi where they have picked four points, they now stand favourite to clinch the automatic berth to the Nations Cup in their pool.

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Eleven group winners will join the co-hosts in the 2012 Nations Cup finals with the other three qualifying as best runner-ups across all 11 groups. At the moment, Kenya is out of the running for this alternative route, with Mali (Group A), Nigeria (Group B), Niger (Group G), Sudan (Group H) and Malawi (Group K) in the hunt for the best pool runner-up slots.

Put simply, Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno’s side need to win all their remaining three matches, away to Angola, at home to Guinea Bissau and away to Cranes to achieve the maximum 13 points that could seen them either overhaul Uganda at the top of the group or strongly challenge for the three best runner-up slots open to the 11 groups.

“Our focus is now on the next match. I prefer playing away since there is no pressure from home fans booing you. I told you before this game there was no pressure on me, coaching Gor Mahia is tougher than Harambee Stars but the job is not done,” Otieno who took over from Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee told reporters after the Angola game.

Stars take on Nigeria’s Super Eagles in an away friendly on Wednesday where Zico needs to figure out how to shape his side without his suspended midfield lynchpin.

“Of course, we are very disappointed to miss Mariga but the referee should have applied common sense. Throughout the game, he made bad decisions that have cost us an important player but we have to move on and find ways to go on without him,” the tactician expressed.

Saturday’s victory over Angola was much welcome for the beleaguered side but it is by no means enough to book Kenya’s place in the Nations Cup since 2004. Rather, it was an encouraging step in the right direction.

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