Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—
ZIMBABWE’S Warriors face the Mother-Of-All-Challenges tonight, needing to pick themselves up from the canvas and exorcise the psychological demons inflicted by the battering they received at the hands of Senegal four days ago, to find a way to beat Tunisia at the 2017 Nations Cup finals. Never have the stakes been this high for the Warriors at Africa’s biggest football festival — win and, hopefully, live to fight another day in the jungles of Gabon and celebrate the immortality of becoming the first Zimbabwean footballers to secure membership among the last eight standing nations at the AFCON finals.
It’s a rare showdown between the two nations, who rarely meet in football battles, and they arrive for their Libreville confrontation, which starts at 9pm, in contrasting fashion.
The Warriors still nursing the wounds, emotional and otherwise, of that beating an inspired Senegal, which deflated their morale, while the Atlas Lions have a spring in their step after defeating Algeria in their last match.
Callisto Pasuwa’s man, who face elimination should they fail to win tonight, don’t need to look any further than the men they will battle tonight for inspiration, and the refusal to be swept away by the emotional challenge of a make-or-break game, after the Tunisians held their nerve to stun Algeria 2-1 in Franceville.
They would have crashed out of the tournament, had they lost to Algeria that day but, after turning it around with a sensational victory, they now have their fate for a place in the quarter-finals, firmly in their hands as a draw tonight will be enough to take them into the last eight.
While things are rather easier, if not straight forward, for Tunisia, the Warriors find themselves entangled in a complex web where even a victory tonight might not be enough to keep alive their Gabonese adventure should Algeria beat Senegal in Franceville.
So, as is usually the case with the Warriors, they don’t only need to secure victory against a tough Tunisian side, who are yet to concede from open play in 150 minutes of action in Gabon, with a 90th minute penalty converted by Algeria the only blot to what has been an otherwise impressive rearguard action since they conceded two goals, in half an hour, against Senegal.
The Warriors will be hoping that Algeria fail to beat Senegal, who have a chance of making it nine win games on the trot stretching from the qualifiers of this 2017 AFCON finals, or — in the event that the Desert Foxes win — their winning margin will be inferior to the one to be posted by Pasuwa and his men.
Historians will tell you the Warriors have a tradition of winning their final group matches of the Nations Cup finals — beating Algeria 2-1 in Tunisia in 2004 and winning by the same margin against Ghana in Egypt two years later — but it’s also fair to say that both games didn’t carry the burden the Class of 2017 will carry into tonight’s showdown.
The pantomime season is over for the Warriors, this is the real deal, it’s either Pasuwa’s men find a way to swim to safety, against a raging tide that is threatening to sweep them away from Gabon back home, and celebrate the glory and, of course, some rich pickings into their bludgeoning bank accounts, which will come with success tonight, or they sink.
In an unforgiving country that has a tendency to quickly turn against its football heroes, when they come short of expectations, the Warriors have already seen the first signs of the brutality of the criticism which will come their way should they come short on this mission and become the first group to fail to win at the Nations Cup finals.
Some of the Sunday newspapers’ columnists fired the first shots yesterday, questioning whether Pasuwa is the right man for the job, at this level, savaging the lack of depth and expertise among his backroom staff and blasting some of the tactics and personnel the coach used in that loss against Senegal.
And, it could get worse, should they fail tonight given the way the Warriors angered some of the football writers who felt their financial demands, just to play in Gabon, were outrageous to the extent of holding a nation — which has its fair share of financial challenges — to ransom.
But, as the Warriors showed with that stylish show against Algeria which should have reaped more dividends than just the point they gained, the best way to silence those dissenting voices is for them to win football matches and cheer the spirits of their long-suffering fans.
The Warriors have conceded four goals, at an average of two goals per match, in Gabon and, for a team whose defensive qualities were questioned by many commentators leading into the tournament, it has been a brutal reminder of the gap that exists between the big boys of African football and the likes of Malawi and Swaziland whom they rolled over without raising much of a sweat. That soft belly at the back suggests Pasuwa’s men are unlikely to get a clean sheet tonight, against opponents who have impressed with their attacking play, with the irresistible Wahbi Zhazri providing quite a threat for everyone, including the powerful Senegalese who were lucky, not once, not twice but even three times, not to concede a goal in that second half against Tunisia.
On Sunday, Elisha Muroiwa was targeted by the critics as an Achilles Heel in that defence but, given he didn’t play a lot of football last year, there were always fears he could be exposed at this level.
And those felt Dennis Dauda was unlucky not to make the squad, despite probably being the best central defender in the domestic Premiership in the second half of the season, have been asking a lot of questions.
The hope for Pasuwa, as it has always been even from the early days of the qualifiers, rests with the attack and the Warriors could be boosted by the return of Knowledge Musona, the man who has been their talisman for the last seven years, although questions remain about his fitness levels.
Khama Billiat was largely contained by the Senegalese, finding himself staging a one-man battle against the powerful Lions of Teranga, having been betrayed on that mission by Matthew Rusike, who was overwhelmed by the challenge of filling Musona’s large boots, and was duly pulled out after just 45 minutes.
This, though, isn’t the time to be throwing brickbats at our players and their coach, not when a window of opportunity still avails itself for them to make history and qualify for the quarter-finals. Post-mortems, by their nature a very unpleasant exercise, but they can wait for another day, until it’s all over.
For now it’s all about what our boys can achieve and knowing that an entire nation is firmly behind them could help them do something very special tonight.
After all, being loved in this game, means a lot.
Article Source: The Herald