NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 10 – Harambee Stars moved top of Group F in the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers after holding hosts Ethiopia to a barren draw at the Bahir Dar Stadium on Wednesday evening.
The result means Stars go to four points having beaten Ghana last month and a win on Sunday in the return leg at the Moi Sports Centre Kasarani will see Kenya inch closer to an AFCON qualification for the first time since 2004.
Stars withstood a tough second half surge by the home side pushed on by a full-to-capacity stadium to pick up the points that pushes them closer to Cameroon.
CAF is yet to decide whether or not results picked by teams against Sierra Leone – who are under FIFA suspension – will stand in the road to qualification.
Sierra Leone were scheduled to play Ghana on Thursday but the game has since been called off.
Head coach Sebastien Migne made two changes from the team that won 1-0 against Ghana last month, skipper Victor Wanyama slotting straight into the starting team for Ismail Gonzalez who started off the bench.
Defender Brian Mandela who was returning to the squad after serving his one match suspension went into the heart of defense to partner Musa Mohammed in the absence of Joash Onyango who is suspended having been sent off against Ghana.
Though Harambee Stars had a conservatist approach to the match, they had the best chances especially in the opening 45. They should have gone to the break 1-0 up but Michael Olunga’s 43rd minute goal was cancelled as referee Bakary Gassama adjudged him to have fouled an Ethiopian defender before scoring.
It was the Ethiopians who threatened first, Getaneh Kebede having a second minute chance turned behind for a corner by Patrick Matasi after some good change of passes on the left.
On the turn, Olunga forced Ethiopian keeper Samson Asefa to turn the ball out for a corner after he rose high at the back post to connect to an Abud Omar cross from the left.
Ethiopia kept the possession as Kenya played behind the ball and they had a chance on the quarter hour with a freekick from range but Gatuoch Panom shot just wide.
Stars had two brilliant back to back chances which should have been buried in the least.
In the 20th minute, Eric Johannah sent Olunga away on the left but the striker’s effort was saved by Asefa. Five minutes later, Skipper Wanyama sent Johannah through with a brilliant defense splitting pass, but the Sweden based midfielder curled the ball wide with only the keeper to beat.
A minute later, another chance presented itself when Johannah sent Ovellah Ochieng through on the right but Asefa was on point once again to make a super block at his near post.
Having thrice dodged bullets, the Walias sought more urgency, looking for that one goal to send the fully packed Bahir Dar Stadium buzzing.
In the 29th minute, another neat interchange of passes between the Ethiopians saw Bekele break into the box, but the diminutive midfielder’s final shot came off the side netting.
Migne started the second half by pulling out Johannah who had struggled to make hgis presence felt and in his place came Ismail Athuman Gonzalez. The change meant Gonzalez and Dennis Odhiambo paired in midfield while Wanyama stepped upfront.
Seven minutes into the half, Migne would be forced to another change with Omar coming off with a suspected groin injury and his place taken by Erick ‘Marcelo’ Ouma.
The Ethiopians pinned Kenya in their own half, playing dangerous balls into the box but their finishing left a lot to be desired.
They came very close in the 66th minute when Bekele took a shot on the first time volley after a long ball from deep in defense found him inside the box, but his shot came off the outside of the upright, a let off for Stars.
Migne’s side kept defending deep with Olunga left an isolated man upfront, not much of balls coming his way. After 72 minutes, the French tactician decided to spice up things in attack by bringing in speedy winger Paul Were.
-Good save Matasi
But still, the home side kept pressing and in the 82nd minute, Matasi was forced into a good save to keep away a shot from Kebede from distance.
The home side thought they had scored in the 83rd minute when Abebo Reshad tapped in at the back post from an Abdulkerim Mohammed cross but the second assistant referee had his flag up for offside.
Stars had to manage the game with Ethiopia increasing the pressure and keeper Matasi played his role by slowing down play.