NAIROBI, Nov. 18 (Xinhua) -- In less than a fortnight, Kenya's aspirations of a second successive Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) appearance have turned from cautious optimism into despair.
Lying second in Group G of the Cameroon 2021 AFCON qualifying - with the finals moved to 2022 due to the pandemic - before rounds three and four of fixtures, there was festering belief that another successful route to the finals would be charted.
After all, the team famously known as Harambee Stars had opened their qualifying campaign with credible 0-0 and 1-1 draw in that order against record AFCON winners, Egypt and 2016 World Cup finalists Togo before facing unfancied table-toppers Comoros in a doubleheader in four days, Nov. 11 and 15.
However, a country that is famous for bottling opportunities headed to the ties against Les Coelacantes under a cloud of controversy, with head coach Francis Kimanzi, who had navigated the ties against the presumptive Group G giants Egypt and Togo last year sacked by Football Kenya Federation only two weeks to the crucial two-legged clash with Comoros.
A day later on Oct. 21, Jacob Mulee, the seasoned coach turned radio personality who led Kenya to the Tunisia 2004 AFCON finals where Stars won their first-ever game at the tournament, returned to the helm having last led out the side 12 years ago.
In his first game in charge, Mulee saw his side come from behind to hold Comoros, who played for over 50 minutes with 10 men, to a 1-1 draw, as the visitors coached by Amir Abdou withstood a barrage in the second half to escape with a precious point in Nairobi from the fixture played on a poor pitch.
Last Sunday, any optimism Kenya had of keeping their 2021 AFCON destiny in their hands melted away when Comoros held on for a 2-1 victory in Moroni, with goals from Ben Nabouhane and Faiz Mattoir either side of a first-half equalizer from Cliff Nyakeya deciding the contest.
Elsewhere in Group G, Egypt belied the blow of losing star striker, Mohamed Salah and later midfielder Mohamed Elneny who tested positive for COVID-19 before the first and second fixtures respectively, to emerge with 1-0 and 3-1 victories over Togo in their double header to climb from third to top of the pool on eight points.
The results left Les Coelacantes needing only a point from their remaining two matches to qualify for their first ever AFCON final and so do The Pharaohs whose pedigree once again showed after hauling themselves from the brink to take command of the pool.
Kenya now requires nothing short of a minor miracle to make it through as another qualifying campaign unraveled.
"For now, the situation does not look good for us. We know we have no choice but to win away to Togo and beat Egypt at home. Those are two difficult matches but in football, we say it's not over until it's over," Mulee wistfully told reporters when the team touched down in Nairobi from Moroni.
"We still have hope that we can play for the three points and finish on nine points to qualify. We are heading to Lome in March before hosting Egypt at home. They are difficult games but it does not mean we can't play for the points," he added.
The inquest, especially on social media, has been harsh on Mulee and FKF whose president, the recently re-elected Nick Mwendwa, made qualifying for the AFCON and 2022 World Cup the centerpiece of his campaign.
Agitated Kenyans took to social media to call for Mulee to be sacked and return to the studio to host his popular morning radio show 'Patanisho' that dwells on repairing sour relationships amongst couples.
Despite the fact that he was without star striker, Michael Olunga, who is scoring for fun in the Japanese J-League for Kashima Reysol after he was ruled out of the Comoros double header by being required to isolate for 10-days when players and staff of his club side tested positive for COVID-19, the tactician was still blamed for his selection choices.
In particular, his preference for seasoned Arnold Origi, who was playing for Kenya for the first time in five years, was questioned with Ethiopia-based Patrick Matasi and Ian Otieno who plies his trade in Zambia.
Matasi, who plays for St. George was between the sticks at the 2019 AFCON finals in Egypt where he earned plaudits despite Kenya's elimination in the group stages while Otieno who made the squad, deputized for Origi who conceded three goals in two games.
Mulee refused to fault Origi- a cousin of Kenyan born Belgian Liverpool striker Divock Origi- for any of the goals scored by Comoros.
His insistence to give chance to winger Ayub Timbe, who was accused of hogging the ball without an end product, preferring Lawrence Juma to Ken Muguna in midfield and ignoring to give top scoring Zambia-based Zesco FC forward, Jesse Were a call up to cover for Olunga are other question marks raised with the team.
What is not in doubt is devoted Kenyan football fans have been left yet again, licking the wounds of another failed campaign to make a major tournament, with the joy of making the AFCON finals last year after an agonizing 15-year wait fast fading.
Following the latest failure, few are optimistic the team can mount a successful bid to make a maiden World Cup appearance in Qatar in 2022. Enditem