At AFCON 2017 Zimbabwe arrived as one of the outsiders. This year they will arrive as outsiders once again but with more robust evidence to state their case.
Overseen by the iconic local coach Sunday Chidzambwa, Zimbabwe qualified from a group that, using our eye test, was definitely the toughest in qualifying.
They squeezed past Congo, DR Congo and Liberia to emerge top of their group, the only reality check a 1-0 defeat away to Liberia. It was a group where all four teams were in contention to qualify until the final matchday, severely testing the nerves of the four teams until the very end.
The highlight of their qualification came in the fortress that is Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa where they came out on top in a 2-1 win. Zimbabwe sat deep and launched a series of counter-attacks that looked like a peak Ranierian Leicester City team. If they can replicate similar resolve and application there is no reason why they could not be outsiders that could impress.
Their preparation has been more intense than that of most other teams. They played in this summer’s COSAFA Cup, the annual Southern African championship, before this tournament to ‘gear themselves up’ according to coach Chidzambwa.
They were unable to add to the back-to-back titles won in 2017 and 2018, instead finishing a credible third after losing on penalties to winners Zambia in the semi-finals but it has given them valuable tournament conditions.
They are confident they are going through the gears, then. But how about this for a test of whether they’re in top gear: facing hosts Egypt in the first game in Cairo.
The Warriors play on the counter-attack and they’re very good at executing their plan of action with pace ubiquitous particularly in attack. The important piece of their puzzle is Kaizer Chiefs’ attacking midfielder Khama Billiat, who picks out the right kind of passes, takes the right kind of spaces, makes the right kind of runs and brings an over-abundance of flair that should once again get fans off their seats. With the entire team on alert when kick-starting counter-attacks, the stream of yellow flying forward was a sight to behold during qualifying.
The counter-attacks – We don’t think there is a better counter-attacking team in the tournament; if there are, then there are not many.
The Achilles’ Heel
An average backline – Maybe being so compact may help them but the defence last time around was their downfall. It’s not as bad as last time around, it simply can’t be, but it remains to be seen if it can cope against impressive forwards on a regular basis.
One of those players that may want to consider retiring from club football to focus on his international career. ‘General’ Knowledge Musona has had a mixed club career but he has never failed to excel in his national team colours, wherever he has been positioned in the attacking third. Whereas Bhilliat adds Five goals in six games during qualification was par for the course for Zimbabwe’s go-to man.
The Hipster’s Choice
One of the finest players to grace the Tanzania Premier League in the last decade has been Thabani Kamusoko. He has endeared himself to the Young Africans fans as he has won them league titles and displayed the guile and manipulation of games they love to see in their midfielders.
A serious injury has taken some pace out of him but he hasn’t lost his passing range and still has the vigour for one more fight. A good performance at the COSAFA Cup a few weeks ago saw the 31-year-old overcome the odds to make the final squad. Not bad going.
The evergreen Sunday Chidzambwa has grounds to claim he’s a captain, leader and legend. He became the first captain of the Zimbabwe national team after independence. The 67-year-old is also the only coach to lead a local team to the final of an African club competition when he led Dynamos to the final of the Champions League in 1988.
They saw DR Congo off in qualifying and should logically see Uganda off, but they don’t have a great pedigree in this tournament. It’s hard to predict what to expect from them though they could potentially qualify as one of the best third-placed teams. What’s certain is they have the invention to hurt teams and they will guarantee entertainment in the attacking third.