Nairobi — Despite an improved second half performance, national football team Harambee Stars went down 2-1 to hosts Iraq in an international friendly match played at the Basra Stadium on Thursday night.
Michael Olunga's shot four minutes from time was never enough as first half goals from Brwa Nouri and Ahmed Khalaf saw the Lions of Mesopotamia pick a win against their East African opponents.
This was Iraq's second home match since FIFA lifted a four-year ban against football being played in the Asian country. Their previous tie at home was against Jordan which they won 1-0.
Changes made by First Coach Stanley Okumbi at the start of the second period saw Kenya perform better, but the product in the final third lacked the required quality to open up for goals.
Gor Mahia midfielder Ernest Wendo was handed his first start in a FIFA recognized game by Okumbi, pairing up in midfield alongside Teddy Akumu in the absence of skipper Victor Wanyama.
Goalkeeper Patrick Matasi started his second consecutive match for Stars in between the sticks ahead of Boniface Oluoch while Posta Rangers right back Samuel Mbugua started on the right side of defense.
-Woeful first half-
Stars had a woeful first half and found themselves 2-0 down at half time. The hosts took cruise control of the game from the first whistle, playing short, comfortable quick passes and cheered on by an almost full to capacity Basra Stadium, Kenya left dazed.
Brwa Nouri broke the deadlock in the 17th minute from the penalty spot after Justin Hikmaat was nudged in the back by Samuel Onyango inside the box. Nouri drilled the ball straight through the middle with Matasi diving to one side.
Before that, Jockins Atudo had made an important off the line clearance in the 14th minute, sliding in to tap the ball a few millimeters off the line after Justin Meram had tapped the ball away from an advancing Matasi.
Iraq were comfortable and Kenya struggled to create any meaningful chances or complete passes around the pack. In the 23rd minute, Eric Johannah loosely misplaced a pass with the ball won by Iraq and a quick counter launched.
However, skipper David Owino made a great tackle at the edge of the box stopping an advancing meram who had picked the ball, eyes on goal.
Iraq continued creating chances and in the 27th minute, AYman Hussein's swift movement on the right left Mbugua with the ball and the Iraqi left winger broke into the box before cutting back the ball for Mahdi Kamil.
However, Kamil took too many touches and tumbled in the box amidst pressure from the Kenyan defenders with his calls for a penalty ignore by the referee.
Kenya tried to knock on the Iraqi door within a space of two minutes. First Michael Olunga's volley from distance went way over while in the 36th minute, Eric Johannah's searching freekick planted to the far post from the left was too heavy going wide.
At the stroke of halftime, Iraq doubled their lead with Khalaf glancing in a header from the edge of the six yard box after rising to meet an in-swinging left footed cross from Waleed Salim.
At the start of the second half, Okumbi made two changes seeking to seal the loopholes that Iraq had exploited in the first half. Musa Mohammed was introduced for Mbugua on the right while Wendo who picked up a sprain at the end of the first half was brought off for John Makwatta.
Clifton Miheso was also introduced to bring his pace on the left side of attack coming in for Onyango.
Iraq were better starters again as Kenya looked to gel in a new combination and Kamil who had been a stubborn figure for Kenya almost made it 3-0 with a snap shot from 30 yards out but matasi managed to get his body behind the ball.
But that was just about it for the hosts in the second half.
The new formation saw Kenya pick up in pace, played better and threatened more. Stars had their first shot on target in the 55th minute when Miheso snapped a shot from distance but the Iraqi keeper saw it early and collected.
Okumbi made his final change, bringing off Were for Massoud Juma who had earlier been a doubt for the game after picking up a knock.
Kenya continued possessing the ball well and asking the questions and Olunga should have halved the deficit in the 69th minute when he picked up a defense splitting pass from Akumu, rounded the keeper but his final shot came up against the side netting.
A minute later, Akumu also had an effort with a shot from the edge of the box after being teed up by Aboud Omar but his effort was awry.
Olunga was clearly the threat for Iraq and it was evident. Whenever he touched the ball, there were whistles all round the stadium with the FC Girona man posing the biggest danger.
In the 76th minute he came knocking once again, this time extending a foot to Miheso's low cross from the left but his shot went straight to the keeper. Four minutes later, Miheso delivered an aerial ball this time round but Olunga headed over.
Four minutes from time, Miheso forced the Iraqi defense to lose the ball and Olunga was well placed at the edge of the box, setting himself up with the first touch before shooting low into the bottom left of the Iraqi goal.
But not even a last ditch pile of pressure could bear any fruit as Iraq held on for the win.
Stars will now travel to Thailand where they will play the Asian team on Sunday.