THE Warriors seized control of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2017 Group L football qualifiers after posting an emphatic win against Swaziland in front of a heaving National Sports Stadium to ensure a happy ending to the Easter holidays yesterday.
BY HENRY MHARA
The Kalisto Pasuwa-coached side illuminated in the second half to breach an organised Swaziland defence four times with the first coming from an audacious Knowledge Musona penalty seven minutes after the break before Costa Nhamoinesu’s thumping header seven minutes later gave surety.
Evans Rusike, a 65th minute substitute, added the advantage in fortuitous fashion though three minutes after replacing Nyasha Mushekwi, before another sub, Khama Billiat, put the gloss on the scoreline with a low shot in the 86th minute.
Billiat celebrated in Cristiano Ronaldo style, and why not for some moments he played like him and his goal was just sublime?
The win put Zimbabwe on the summit of Group L with 8 points, three clear of Swaziland, whilst other group members Guinea and Malawi, both on 2 points, meet in Blantyre today.
Pasuwa’s side host Malawi in June, where a win would almost guarantee them a spot in Gabon before concluding their campaign with an away match in Conakry three months later.
Having produced a flat show in Swaziland on Friday where they escaped with a 1-1 draw, the Warriors needed to put up a convincing display and they did that especially in the second half.
Pasuwa though said the team should not get too excited as yet, as there is still a lot of work to do.
“We are in a position where we want to be, but I wouldn’t say we will qualify at this moment,” Pasuwa said.
“Remember our previous campaigns we normally falter in the last two matches so we need to put everything in place, and continue to work hard in order for us to win the next match against Malawi, who I think are playing well away,” said Pasuwa.
Having struggled to unlock Swaziland in the first half, the former Dynamos coach was pleased they managed to get the key in the second.
“We had some problems in the first half, but I’m happy we managed to unlock the opposition in the second half. In Swaziland we played in a compact pitch, but here it’s a bit expansive with more spaces to run into so you could see Swaziland were tired in the second half and we exploited that advantage.”
The Warriors came into the match under pressure to perform after their draw on Friday, and for the better part of the first half, they created numerous chances but looked like they would be frustrated once again.
Pasuwa made four changes to the team that started in Swaziland with Hardlife Zvirekwi, Marshall Mudehwe, Kudakwashe Mahachi and Dutch-based Nakamba all getting the nod ahead of Danny Phiri, Matthew Rusike, Billiat and Cuthbert Malajila.
The changes appeared to afford him pace and penetration and creativity in midfield with Nakamba pulling strings.
In front of an estimated 40 000 crowd, the Warriors started frantically, but they were almost pegged back early on.
Goalkeeper Tatenda Mukuruva, outstanding in Swaziland, pulled a super save from a Felix Badenhorst shot to save the situation early.
Mudehwe, who struggled with his game, got the Warriors’ first real chance in the 9th minute, but shot weakly at the goalkeeper after being fed by Musona who had done well on the right wing.
Zvirekwi then dragged his shot wide and Mushekwi skied over from close range as chances were coming thick and fast for the hosts.
The visitors thought they had found the opener in the 23rd minute when Njabulo Ndlovu headed in a Tony Tsabedze free kick but the goal was disallowed for an offside.
Musona then darted his way down the middle and produced a shot which keeper Nhlanhla Gwebu did enough to block. The striker then headed over as the first half approached after some neat interchanges in the box with Mushekwi, who had also tried his luck with a bicycle kick.
Pasuwa sought to enliven things up and he swapped poor Mudehwe for fans’ favourite Billiat who had been kept on the bench after complaining of fatigue.
The Mamelodi Sundowns winger was quickly involved, his well-worked free kick, a cutback to Musona, could not breach the Swazi defence, but moments later, the goal eventually came.
Mahachi was brought down inside the box after good inter-change of play and the referee pointed to the spot. Musona took responsibility with an audacious chip which took agonisingly long to cross the line yet there was no danger the goalkeeper would save it since he was sprawling on the wrong side.
But as Musona raced to celebrate there was a mixture of relief and jubilation.
Musona later told the media that the spot kick was not a fluke as he had practised it the previous day.
Three minutes later, Zimbabwe got another chance when they were awarded a free kick inside the penalty arc. Musona could have doubled his tally had it not been of a brilliant save from the Swaziland goalkeeper.
But there is nothing he could do to stop the hosts’ second goal. Swaziland would have known of Nhamoinesu’s threat with the head, but somehow the Sparta Prague defender still managed to ghost from the far post to thump a header past the goalkeeper.
At this moment, the Warriors had sent their adoring fans to heaven, yet they were not finished.
Rusike was soon celebrating after he benefited from a deflection having miscontrolled the ball only for the attempted clearance to cannon off his leg and into the back of the net.
Three became four later on, when Billiat was afforded some space inside the box and punished the defenders with a low shot.
Zimbabwe: T Mukuruva, C Nhamoinesu, O Bhasera, E Muroiwa, H Zvirekwi, W Katsande, M Nakamba (D Phiri, 85’), K Mahachi, M Mudehwe (K Billiat, 46’), K Musona, N Mushekwi (E Rusike, 62’)
Swaziland: N Gwebu, S Mabila, S Mkhweli, M Dlamini, N Ndlovu, S Mduli, X Sibandze, M Lukhele, S Ndzinisa, F Badenhorst, T Tsabedze