ZIM Warriors go into their Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2017 Group L football qualifiers against Swaziland this afternoon with a mission to save themselves and their loyal fans from the wretched despair that has characterised most of their major tournament campaigns in recent years. BY Kevin Mapasure
The Zimbabwe senior national team last qualified for the Afcon finals in 2006 under the guidance of the now United States-based coach Charles Mhlauri.
Since then they have scripted one sorry story after the other in their Afcon and World Cup campaigns, some of which ended in national embarrassment.
Like most of their campaigns, the current quest is brimming with lots of optimism, particularly considering that the team made a good start, picking four points from the first two matches.
Today they face Swaziland, a team that has shocked and surprised many, especially with their away win against group favourites Guinea.
Sihlangu, as Swaziland are known by their fans, have drawn lots of belief from recent results so much that they have declared that they are targeting four points against Zimbabwe in the back-to-back clashes with the second match coming on Monday at the National Sports Stadium in Harare.
Kalisto Pasuwa is hoping to emulate Sunday Chidzambwa and Mhlauri, the only coaches to have led Zimbabwe to the Afcon finals, and he knows all too well that the points at stake today could thrust him closer to achieving that feat if claimed in full.
A win for Zimbabwe would see them open a three-point gap with their closest rivals going into a home match they would also expect to win in front of their home crowd.
Swaziland have never been tough opponents for Zimbabwe, but this time they look more formidable never mind their modest resources when you compare them with their visitors.
Zimbabwe have called their big guns with impressive CVs from Europe and South Africa’s best clubs while the hosts have drawn most of their players from their local top-flight league.
Parading Sparta Prague defender Costa Nhamoinesu, Belgium-based striker Knowledge Musona as well as the South African top flight’s star player Khama Billiat, add Kaizer Chiefs’ Willard Katsande and Vitesse’s Marvellous Nakamba at the base of the midfield, Zimbabwe seem to have enough in their arsenal to pulverise the hosts.
Yet in African football an away win is a tough result to achieve no matter the status of the teams.
Nigeria discovered that when they were held to a goalless draw by Swaziland in a Fifa 2018 World Cup qualifier last year only to achieve progression with a 2-0 home win.
Swaziland have proved to be a hard nut to crack and after Malawi had lost to Zimbabwe in their own backyard, they thought they could resurrect their campaign with a win against Swaziland, but they only managed a single point after a 2-2 draw.
Zimbabwe have to play Malawi at home and Guinea away in their last two matches and they would want to get to the death throes of this campaign in a healthy state of affairs.
Pasuwa always wants to build from a strong defence and he may opt for a back four that features the returning Onismo Bhasera, Partson Jaure, Nhamoinesu and Eric Chipeta.
Nakamba, who has been in superb form for his Dutch top-flight side Vitesse, will be desperate to prove that he was worth the call, having failed to make it into the squad for the last qualifier.
He could play alongside captain Katsande in midfield at the expense of Danny Phiri, who played in that position in the match against Guinea.
It is upfront that Pasuwa is spoiled for choice having taken six strikers with him to Swaziland in his 18-man squad.
He could opt to thrust some of those at the wings.
Barring any injuries, Billiat and Musona are sure starters, but it will be interesting to see whether Mushekwi, now playing his football in China, will play ahead of or alongside either Cuthbert Malajila or Evans Rusike.
Mathew Rusike could be reserved on the substitutes’ bench, but his high energy style of play will certainly be called upon later into the game.
Tatenda Mukuruva (Dynamos), Washington Arubi (Pretoria University)
Patson Jaure (Pretoria University), Eric Chipeta (Chippa United), Costa Nhaimoinesu (Sparta Prague), Bruce Kangwa (Highlanders), Onismo Bhasera (Wits University), Elisha Muroiwa (Dynamos)
Willard Katsande (Kaizer Chiefs), Marvellous Nakamba (Vitesse), Danny Phiri (Chicken Inn), Kuda Mahachi (Golden Arrows),
Knowledge Musona (KV Oostende), Nyasha Mushekwi (China Dalian Yifang FC) Cuthbert Malajila (Sundowns), Khama Billiat (Sundowns), Mathew Rusike (Helsingborg IF FC), Evans Rusike (Maritzburg)