Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—
ZIMBABWE’S Warriors stand on the threshold of venturing into unchartered territory, in their quest for greatness, when they take on Africa’s number one ranked national football team, Senegal’s Lions of Teranga, in Gabon tonight hoping to underline their growing reputation as giant-killers at the 2017 Nations Cup finals.
Just four days after holding the continent spellbound, with an irresistible display of attacking football in one of the best 45 minutes ever played by the Warriors, Callisto Pasuwa and his men plunge into a showdown that is likely to provide a brutal examination of their pedigree in a crucial Group B battle in Franceville.
The match gets underway at 9pm.
The Warriors charmed the football world as they gave as much as they got against Algeria, making a mockery of their underdog status, to run the Desert Foxes ragged with a performance that was dripping with purity, especially in the attacking phase of their play, as they came within just eight minutes of a sensational victory.
Only a late, late goal by African Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mahrez, and an inspired performance by the Algerian ‘keeper, ensured the Warriors didn’t harvest the fruits their spirited efforts duly merited on a night when they flew their national flag with pride and delighted their fans, and millions of other neutrals, with a performance for the archives.
But, having passed the test against a team led by the man considered the best footballer on the continent last year, and also the best player in the English Premiership during the 2015/2016 season, the Warriors have to deal with another nation led by the attacking prowess of the most expensive African footballer in history.
Some will call it a very tough examination.
But, for Pasuwa and his men, it provides them with the perfect opportunity to judge how far they have come as a team since they ended the country’s 11-year wait to play at the Nations Cup finals by qualifying for the Gabon tournament with a game to spare.
Pasuwa, to his credit, has been an oasis of confidence in a desert dominated by a lot of doubting Thomases and yesterday he again charmed the media as he told the football writers, at a media conference, he doesn’t only expect his men to compete against Senegal but to even win the big game.
He said if he begins to show signs of weaknesses, believing that this is Mission Impossible, it will send a wrong signal to a group of hard-working players who might not have the profile of the stars of the West Africans but have the fighting spirit to match them pound-for-pound in the 90 minutes of the Franceville battle.
There were a number of occasions, in the second half of Senegal’s opening match against Tunisia, when the Lions of Teranga were forced onto the back foot and needed the intervention of a post and a number of very good saves by their ‘keeper just for them to survive the blitzkrieg from the North Africans.
Pasuwa believes his speedy forwards, who were excellent against Algeria, can open the West Africans and, rather than let his men spend the night mourning the two points they effectively dropped against the Desert Foxes, he allowed them to explode into a party in the dressing room where they celebrated wildly as if they had won the tournament.
“Khama Billiat’s performance against Algeria won hearts of many and proved why he is one of best players based in Africa as per the CAF awards,” the editors of SuperSport.com website said yesterday as they picked their best six moments of the first round of group matches.
“He may not have found the back of the net but it was 90 minutes during which he demonstrated skill, technique, showmanship and trickery. It was like a throwback to the days of Okocha, Feindouno, Mustapha Haji and El Hadji Diouf, the players who entertained and terrorised opponents with trickery. “
The SuperSport.com experts also said the Warriors/Desert Foxes match was the best game of the first round of the group games.
“Algeria versus Zimbabwe was unanimously voted as the best match of the opening round of the tournament,” they noted.
“The tempo of the match was high as action swayed from one end to the other, both teams dazzling each other with great pace and skill. Mahrez scored the two goals of the Foxes but Khama Billiat could have easily gotten a hat-trick, but he was denied by the woodwork and the goalkeeper several times.”
But the Warriors will have to forget all the lavish praise that has been coming towards them from a continent charmed by their spirited adventure against Algeria and concentrate on trying to win against the Lions of Teranga tonight.
Should that happen, the Warriors will take their points to four, the highest they have ever harvested at the Nations Cup finals, after the pioneers of 2004 and the Class of 2006 only managed three points which all came in the final game of their group games after they had lost their first two matches.
Midfielder Marvelous Nakamba is expected to return to the team but Pasuwa finds himself with a lot of homework to do after his replacement, Danny Phiri, did well against Algeria.
They will, no doubt, once again miss the value of Knowledge Musona, who is unavailable for tonight’s match after he picked an injury in the first game against Algeria, but the message from the Warriors’ camp has been a defiant one that they hunt as a team and while the Smiling Assassin gives them a special dimension in attack, they can cope without him.
The last time the two countries clashed at the Nations Cup finals, the Senegalese triumphed 2-0 in the Egyptian city of Port Said with Benjani Mwaruwari missing a golden chance, when the game was still there to be saved, when he skied his effort from close range with the ‘keeper at his mercy.
But, traditionally, the Warriors have always done well against the Lions of Teranga and, if they can retain their focus, amid the razzmatazz that has been created by their good show against Algeria, and stick to the basics, then they can compete against their illustrious rivals tonight.
Of course, not many are giving them a chance, but that was the case against Algeria.
It’s up to Pasuwa’s men to show the world that their performance that night was not a fluke and Kuda Mahachi is just as good as any of the players they will be taking on tonight.
The nation can barely wait.
Article Source: The Herald