Kenya’s Harambee Stars begin yet another campaign to appear in the African finals when they face Sierra Leone at the 45,000-capacity Siaka Stevens Stadium in Freetown on Saturday from 4.30pm GMT.
This will be Stars opening 2019 Afcon qualifying Group F match.
The other group encounter sees favourites to qualify Ghana hosting 2013 finalists Ethiopia at the Baba Yara Sports Stadium, in Kumasi on Sunday.
Kenya, who flew out of Nairobi on Thursday for the west African country, last qualified for the Nations Cup way back in 2004 when the continental football showpiece was held in Tunisia.
However, there is optimism in the Stars camp of going all the way this time round under coach Stanley Okumbi, who has overseen an impressive 10-match unbeaten run stretching back to last year, albeit all matches being friendly internationals save for two.
Speaking in Nairobi before departure to Freetown, Okumbi said they had had the best possible preparations and were clear in their minds what they had to do.
“I want the players to forget about the disappointing run in the 2017 qualifiers. I want us to concentrate fully on this match because it is ours for the taking,” Okumbi said.
Okumbi may have been prompted to state so by the latest Fifa rankings that show Kenya lying at a superior position 74 compared to Sierra Leone’s 113, or just feeling confident when he looked at the firepower at his disposal.
Stars will be captained by Tottenham Hotspur midfield powerhouse Victory Wanyama, still glowing from helping his club finish second in the English Premier League table. The Kenyans also boast of rising China-based striker Michael Olunga, who has virtually scored in all his Harambee Stars outing.
Kenya, though, have a notoriously poor travelling record. They last won away in an Afcon qualifier on October 12, 2002, beating Cape Verde 1-0 in Praia. It was in that campaign that Kenya qualified for the 2004 finals.
Will they pull another win away from home and so emphatically underline their intentions of ending their African finals appearance drought?
On the other hand, Leone Stars captain Umaru Bangaura, who turns out for Swiss club FC Zurich, is confident that his team will end their long wait of qualifying for the African finals. Sierra Leone have not featured at the continent’s grand stage since back-to-back qualifications in 1994 and 1996.
“We’ve got a great squad hungry for a ticket to Cameroon,” he warned.
Officials to handle the Freetown match are all from Nigeria, namely Ferdinand Udoh Aniete, Efosa Celestine Igudia and Abdulmajeed Olaide.
Kenya squad: Goalkeepers: Boniface Oluoch, Patrick Matasi; Defenders: Eric Ouma, David Owino, David Ochieng, Brian Mandela, Simon Mbugua, Joseph Okumu, Musa Mohammed; Midfielders: Boniface Muchiri, Victor Wanyama, Anthony Akumu, Ayub Timbe, Ernest Wendo, Jackson Macharia, Stephen Waruru, Eric Johanna; Strikers: Masoud Juma, Michael Olunga, Samuel Onyango
Sierra Leone squad: Goalkeepers: Solomon Zombo Morris, Alhaji Dauda Kamara; Defenders: Umaru Bangura, Yeami Dunia, David Simbo, John Kamara, Kempson Fofanah, Abu Suma and Hassan Sesay; Midfielders: Alfred Sankoh, Gibrilla Julius Wobay, Abdul Sesay, Kwame Quee, George Davies, Mohamed Kamara, Khalifa Jabbie, Michael Lahoud, Thomas Koroma, Abu Kanu; Strikers: Kei Kamara, Victor Mansaray, Mohamed Buya Turay, Alhassan Kamara, Abdul Bangura, Nathaniel Tongor Fullah