Kenya's Harambee Stars go for history at AFCON

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NAIROBI, June 17 (Xinhua) -- The Harambee Stars, Kenya's national football team, have given fans a chance to dream how far the team may go on return to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) after a win and draw in their build up.

The team, which departs for Cairo, Egypt on Tuesday ahead of the start of the tournament on Friday, has been supported by the government, giving fans optimism that this batch of players may rewrite history and reach the quarterfinal stage for the first time in their sixth appearance at the AFCON.

"Our target is to get to the quarterfinals. But we have to navigate through the group stage first and that is where our assignment starts. Certainly, Harambee Stars is not going to Egypt to see the pyramids. We are not tourists. Harambee Stars mean business in the AFCON," said head coach Sebastian Migne.

The Harambee Stars go back to their base in France from Madrid, Spain where the team was held to a 1-1 draw by the Democratic Republic of Congo in their second and final international friendly match ahead of the AFCON, which starts on June 21 to July 19.

The match saw Kenya concede an 86th minute Arthur Masuaku equalizer which neutralized a fine first-half strike by Michael Olunga.

Kenya has been pooled in Group C alongside the Desert Foxes of Algeria, Senegal's Teranga Lions, and Tanzania's Taifa Stars.

The first match on June 23 will see the Stars take on Algeria. Tanzania will be up next on June 27, before Kenya wind up their group stage matches against Senegal on July 1.

There are six groups of four teams with only the top two assured automatic ticket to the second round of 16.

Four other best third placed teams will join in to make the 16 teams that will go on for the knockout stage to determine the eight quarterfinalists.

Senegal and Algeria are alongside Kenya and Tanzania, who have only qualified once before in 1980 - are in Group C.

It is not hard to establish that Senegal are the favorites. They are the highest-ranked African team with a star-studded squad.

As for who will join them in the next round, Algeria is the safest bet. Tanzania will likely bow out early but whether Kenya will join them or upset the Teranga Lions remains unclear.

Migne believes Kenya, and by extension East Africa, is fast closing the gap, having entered four teams - Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi - in the finals.

"The big difference in quality, between teams is not really there anymore, like it was 10 years ago in Africa. Now every team has players who play in Europe so they have the experience to play at a high level. But when you want to win a big tournament like the Africa Cup of Nations you have to win against small and big teams," he said.

This will be Kenya's sixth appearance. All five of their previous attempts to make the knockout stage ended in failure. The Harambee Stars have won only one of the 14 AFCON games they have played beating Burkina Faso 3-2 in 2004.

The remaining have been 12 loses and one draw. In the qualifiers, they finished only two points behind Ghana and will thus be hopeful of upsetting their Group C rivals.

Senegal does not boast the best of records at the AFCON. While the Lions of Teranga have long been a formidable side in Africa, they are yet to win their continental cup.

Regardless, they topped their group in the qualifiers and are one of the favorites. Mane and company are not ranked 23 in the world and number one in Africa for no reason.

In other groups, Egypt's Pharaohs lead pool A, which also has Uganda Cranes, Democratic Republic of Congo's Leopards and Zimbabwe. Many expect the Pharaohs to soar through.

The Egyptians may have Mohammed Salah to unleash at their will to torment the defenses, but it is critical to note that Uganda are well organized under Sebastien Desabre, are hard-working and defensively stout. Critically, Uganda Cranes defeated Egypt during the recent World Cup qualifying campaign.

Both Zimbabwe and the DRC have talented attackers who could also trouble the hosts, and the Pharaohs can't take anything for granted after this draw.

Egypt's assistant coach, Hany Ramzy, said after the draw in April that the Pharaohs were "comfortable" with their pool.

"We are confident, we are here in our land with the supporters behind us, so we have to work hard to reach the final."

Group F has defending champions Cameroon, who were stripped the hosting rights in January. They face Ghana, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.

This group presents another case of underdogs versus favorites. Guinea-Bissau and Benin will aim to upset defending champions Cameroon and four-time winners Ghana.

In Group B, Madagascar and Burundi are making their AFCON debuts and are viewed as minnows but they have proved that they can get the job done against much more established sides. Both are capable of stunning a Nigeria and Guinea side who can run out of ideas in the final third.

In Group D, Morocco bounced back to top Group A, while the Cote d'Ivoire progressed as Group H runners-up behind Guinea.

South Africa needed a final-matchday victory over Libya to progress after being inexplicably held in the Seychelles, and Namibia's joy at their first qualification since 2008 was dampened by a 4-1 loss to Zambia. They'll have their work cut out in the 'Group of Death'.

However, it's hard to see Namibia troubling the other three teams, but South Africa's defensive solidity could make life difficult for either of the group's other big sides.

If they can finish above Morocco or Cote d'Ivoire, then one of these giants could be forced to face Nigeria or Egypt in the Round of 16.

In Group E, Mali were one of five teams who went through qualifying unbeaten, while Tunisia should prevent slip-ups, particularly against the group's weaker duo Mauritania and Angola. The North Africans have reached the knockouts in nine of their last 12 AFCONs. Enditem

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