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Afcon: Could evolved Zimbabwe be Africa Cup of Nations dark horses?

10:59 AM EDT 6/6/19
Knowledge Musona & Khama Billiat of Zimbabwe
The Warriors have a tough first-round draw, but have the quality to reach the latter stages

Zimbabwe may well feel that, with the possible exception of Namibia, they received the hardest Africa Cup of Nations group-stage draw when the pots were revealed in Cairo on April 12.

Admittedly, they don’t have quite as tough an assignment as the Brave Warriors, who have been pitted alongside Morocco, the Ivory Coast and South Africa, but the southern Africans still have their work cut out to progress.

Indeed, according to the four pots as organised ahead of the draw, Zimbabwe’s Group A opponents the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda were the first and second highest ranked teams in Pots Two and Three respectively.

Egypt, ranked 57th in the world, may have been the lowest ranked team in Pot One, but the Pharaohs—who meet Zimbabwe in the tournament opener in two weeks—have both home advantage on their side and boast the fearsome Mohamed Salah.

The Warriors’ defenders, drawn from national leagues in South Africa, Wales and Zambia among others, face the unenviable task of keeping the Liverpool superstar—and Champions League winner—silent when they open the continental showpiece at the Cairo International Stadium.

However, while Zimbabwe are outsiders to escape into the knockout stages, the squad assembled by Sunday Chidzambwa has enough about it to trouble the bigger teams in the group.

The Warriors demonstrated at the 2017 event that they’re unfazed by being the underdogs.

In Gabon too, where there was no possibility of a third team advancing from the group, they were pitched alongside the particularly ominous trio of Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia.

They were within eight minutes of defeating an underwhelming Fennecs side in their opener, coming back from a goal down within 12 minutes to lead 2-1 with 82 minutes on the clock.

Riyad Mahrez ultimately struck a late equaliser to ensure the points were shared in Franceville.

Then, against Senegal, they were blown away by an early onslaught—Sadio Mane and Henri Saivet putting the Teranga Lions 2-0 to the good—before a first-half blitz at the hands of Tunisia all but ended their game.

Zim were 4-1 down after 45 minutes against the Carthage Eagles in Libreville, and while Tendai Ndoro pulled another goal back just before the hour mark, it wasn’t enough to prompt a late comeback.

The Cosafa heavyweights were heading home, but they’d struck four against two of Africa’s biggest sides, and won many admirers on the way.

In the subsequent two and a half years, Callisto Pasuwa and then Chidzambwa have set about refining Zim’s attacking qualities while making them a little sturdier at the back.

They took no part in the World Cup qualifying campaign after being disqualified in 2015, but bounced back to win the Cosafa Cup in 2018, as well as qualifying for the Nations Cup.

It’s the first time they’ve qualified for successive tournaments since 2006, and while their qualifying campaign wasn’t flawless—the 1-0 defeat by Liberia in November dampened expectations—Zim took four points from the DRC to qualify ahead of the Leopards and eliminate Congo-Brazzaville.

Chidzambwa has overseen an evolution in Zimbabwe’s personnel rather than an overhaul, with key players from 2017 such as Danny Phiri, Kudakwashi Mahaci and Marvelous Nakamba still important pillars of the side.

Nyasha Mushekwi remains too, as does Khama Billiat—even if he hasn’t hit the heights that were expected over the last 24 months—and Knowledge Musona, so dazzling in those aforementioned valiant Afcon displays against Senegal and Tunisia.

The attacking identity still remains very similar, with Nakamba, such an underrated pass-master at Club Brugge, the lynchpin.

All but three of the players who started the Cosafa Cup final victory over Zambia have been named in the squad, with one of the absentees—attacking midfielder Terrence Dzvukamanja a big loss.

The former Ngezi Platinum man misses out due to a groin injury, but could have been a hit at the Nations Cup after making the move to Bidvest Wits in the PSL in August.

Abbas Amidu is another to miss out due to injury.

His misfortune has opened the door to others though, and the diminutive Rodwell Chinyengetere could be an x-factor for the Warriors off the bench.

The Baroka FC man was FC Platinum’s star performer as they won the title last term, netting 17 goals in the process, prompting his former coach Norman Mapeza to lament recently how hard he’d found it to replace the Golden Boot winner.

Chinyengetere has found the going tougher in South Africa, but at 31, could be one of the unexpected attacking players to watch at the Nations Cup.

Tafadzwa Rusike, enjoying a late-career renaissance at Zambian side Zanaco is another one to watch, as is veteran midfielder Thabani Kamusoko, who’s returned to the fold while longterm captain Willard Katsande has been cut.

Macauley Bonne, of Leyton Orient, is another potential difference-maker, assuming his citizenship is ratified in time for the tournament. The lethal lower league hitman has scored 24 in 46 matches for the fifth-tier side this term, and could be a fine option for Chidzambwa and his staff off the bench.

It’s in defence that the coach has overseen the greatest change.

As well as defensive midfielder Katsande, who threatened an international comeback after playing in the qualifying defeat by Liberia, all three goalkeepers who travelled to Gabon have been overlooked.

So too have the defensive unit; divisive Costa Nhamoinesu declared his international retirement, and appears set to miss out despite reports that ZIFA are attempting to coax him back, while the likes of Hardlife Zvirekwi, Onismor Bhasera and Bruce Kangwa have all also drifted away from the fold.

Some may have been culled too soon, but Chidzambwa clearly saw that there was talent coming through, in the form of Alec Mudimu (24), Teenage Hadebe (23) and attacking left-back Ronald Pfumbidzai (25).

At 27, Tendayi Darikwa is the oldest of the likely defensive starters, but only made his debut in 2017 after previous aborted attempts to represent the national side.

Results with the new defensive unit have been mixed, but the ongoing Cosafa Cup—which began with a 2-0 victory over the Comoros—is an ideal way for the Warriors to develop an understanding, even if they are currently without their coach following the death of his father.

There’s no doubt that Zimbabwe are in a tricky spot after a miserable first-round draw, but Chidzambwa’s evolved side have momentum—and a culture of success—on their side as they attempt the unthinkable.

Egypt must be very wary when they step out onto the Cairo International turf for their opener, as Zimbabwe’s attractive style may not be undermined by naivety this time around.