NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 10 – Ten-man Harambee Stars had a false start to their qualification journey for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with a 2-1 loss at the hands of the Leone Stars of Sierra Leone in Freetown on Saturday evening.
Kenya went into the fixture on the backdrop of a much talked about 10-match unbeaten run, most in friendly matches, but head coach Stanley Okumbi was stunned back to reality with his third loss since taking charge of the team early last year.
Julius Wobay’s low finish in the first half and skipper Umaru Bangura’s second half penalty saw the hosts pick a vital win, with Michael Olunga’s well struck freekick late in the second half not doing much to change Kenya’s fortunes.
Kenya went a man down with five minutes left in the first half when Brian Mandela saw a straight red card for a lunging tackle on Alhassan as the last man in defense with the hosts having switched in to attack so fast the Kenyan backline was found napping
Okumbi handed a national team debut to Kariobangi Sharks forward Massoud Juma who partnered Olunga in attack with Eric Johannah and Ayub Timbe providing the depth from wide.
Skipper Victor Wanyama and Anthony Akumu picked up midfield duties.
Despite going a goal and a man down, Kenya had the best of chances in the opening 45 minutes of the game. Massoud, Olunga and Wanyama had Harambee Stars’ best chances.
Massoud found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the 17th minute from a Olunga low cross, but the Kariobangi Sharks forward could not endear himself to the Kenyan fans on his debut when his pale effort was thwarted by the Sierra Leone shot stopper.
Four minutes on the turn, the Siaka Stevens Stadium was sent into frenzy when Wobay shot low past Boniface Oluoch in the Kenyan goal.
Dangerman Kei Kamara had broken away on the left before cutting back a cross which Wobay met and despite Oluoch having a touch on the ball, it hit the inside of the bar on its way in.
Stars had a chance to draw back level four minutes after going down when Wanyama glanced an Johanna freekick goal-ward, but the ball smoothered the top of the crossbar. In the 34th minute, Johanna had a chance from a freekick but he sent it straight to the keeper.
In the 36th minute, Stars had two superb back-to-back chances but both went begging. Johanna broke into the box from the left before cutting back a cross for Wanyama who saw his shot saved by the keeper.
The rebound fell on Olunga who blasted a left footer onto the crossbar and Sierra Leone cleared.
In the second half, play was made tougher with heavy rains hitting the capital and slowing down the tempo of the game.
In the 56th minute, Alhassan came close to adding a second but he slipped as he pulled the trigger when he met a cross from the right with the ball going wide. The hosts came inches close in the 63rd minute when Alfred Sanko slipped a shot on the upright from a Hassan Sessay cross from the left.
The second goal finally came for the hosts in the 68th minute from the penalty spot after Kei Kamara was axed inside the box by Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma.
Skipper Bangura stepped up and made no mistake, despite Oluoch going the right way.
Going down 2-0 with 10-men was always going to be an uphill task for the Harambee Stars, but they showed some bit of fighting spirit with Olunga halving the deficit with 15 minutes left with a sumptuous freekick.
Despite fighting for the remaining quarter hour, Stars could not find the back of the net.
The other Group E match will see the Black Stars of Ghana host Ethiopia in Accra.
Kenya’s next assignment will be next year March when they host Ghana in Nairobi.