NAIROBI, July 6 – Nearly and what-might-have been is the tune Harambee Stars were left singing once again after a third successive Africa Home Nations Championships (CHAN) preliminary round exit as hope turned to the familiar feeling of despair.
If there is anything that best summed the thin margin between success and failure was the Ali Abondo missed penalty in the 64th minute that came off the post besides the home side fluffing other few chances which left the few fans that turned up at Nyayo National Stadium heartbroken.
It was the second penalty miss by the Kenyans after Ethiopia custodian Tarik Getnet rescued Tusker FC midfielder’s Kevin Kimani spot-kick in the first-leg.
Despite fielding much celebrated Kenyan Premier League (KPL) players and the visibly biased officiating in favour of the hosts; Ethiopia forced a barren draw to progress to the second round 2-0 on aggregate.
For the Walia Ibex, it was cold revenge against their traditional rivals who benefited from their 2011 withdrawal for Stars to earn a 3-0 walk-over to the second round where Uganda bundled them out on the away goals rule after the tie ended 2-2 on aggregate.
Head coach Bobby Williamson changed his first-leg 4-5-1 formation to the more attack minded 4-4-2, with six changes to his side.
KPL champions, Gor Mahia centre-backs Musa Mohammed and Harun Shakava joined Thika United left back Dennis Odhiambo on the first XI.
Ethiopia pressed their defence high and could have nicked a killer away goal early in the second half only for the largely untested keeper Boniface Oluoch to deny skipper, Behailu Assefa with a brilliant double save following a quick counter.
“If we could have scored the two penalties, we could have qualified but we are out. Before the match, I told Dennis (Odhiambo) to take penalties but I was disappointed to see Abondo take it but that’s football.
“They did well on the counter attack but our keeper was keen to keep us in the game. It was difficult for us because we created a lot of clear cut chances but never showed enough quality in the box,” frustrated, Williamson said after the match.
He added, “Credit to opposition they did well to close our full-backs. We couldn’t go for the ball and it saw us resort to long balls but (Michael) Olunga and (Jesse) Were panicked in the box. It didn’t fall for us.”
His opposite number, Johannes Sahle, slammed the match officials for poor officiating but was determined to better their 2014 performance where they bowed out at the group stages of the finals held in South Africa.
“They were expecting us to seat back and defend the two goals but we attacked. We pressured them and they started playing long balls, we also took confidence away from their defenders and it worked for us.
“I’m not happy with the referee, he made unnecessary calls, something that is not even in football rules but I thank the players because they handled it well,” the former St. George player lamented.
Captain, Collins Okoth was solid in the midfield but the ineffectiveness of his partner, Humphrey Mieno created space for Ethiopia’s Coffee FC midfielder, Gatouch Panom to dominate the centre Behailu always dangerous every time they broke.
This forced Williamson charges to play long with wingers Abondo from the right and Kevin Kimani on the opposite flank pinging the ball to the box and despite the award, sometimes in contentious fashion, of numerous free-kicks from dangerous positions, the pair found the wall of Row Z with their efforts.
Abondo failed to replicate his KPL form, squandering three clear cut chances that if converted, could have stunned a side ranked 24 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
Stars could have been up by a goal four minutes to the break when the referee from Comoros awarded them an indirect-free-kick inside the box, but Abondo who has scored nine goals for champions Gor found the wall instead of swinging in a cross for either Olunga or Were to nod home.
Abondo, the inaugural Sport-Pesa Sports Journalist Monthly Award winner completed hos horror show when he lazily took a spot-kick that hit the right side of the post with Ibex keeper Getneb diving to the right direction.
That demoralised the player who had not missed a penalty this season with Williamson pulling him out for Tusker FC’s new man Danson Kago who also failed to leave up to the coach’s expectations.
Kago’s substitution was meant to see him man the right wing and curl in crosses but instead the midfielder decided to play deep inside which exposed right-back Edwin Wafula.
In form K’Ogalo striker, Olunga, sagged under the huge pressure placed on his shoulders to replicate his club form on the continental stage when he failed to prove a point and make amends after wasting chances in Ethiopia.
Olunga only had a single shot on target that was well dealt with the keeper.
The disappointing elimination saw the fans direct their anger to FKF president, Sam Nyamweya who was in the podium with “Nyamweya must go! Nyamweya must go! Nyamweya must go!” chants renting the air as sign that they are not happy with his leadership since he was elected in 2011.
The embarrassing exit by an Ethiopian side that featured their Under-23’s came almost a year before the national team was bundled out of the 2015 AFCON qualifiers at the pre-qualifiers stage by minnows Lesotho at the same venue.
Stars who are scheduled to host 2018 CHAN have never gone past the second round of the home based players tournament.