AFTER a decade’s absence from the Africa Cup of Nations finals, the Warriors mark their return to the continental premier football tournament tomorrow when they take on Algeria at Stade de Franceville, Franceville, in Gabon, in a game that many have described as a David versus Goliath contest.
BY HENRY MHARA
Zimbabwe, in the ultra-tough Group B, which also has Senegal and Tunisia, are returning to the showpiece desperately hoping to progress to the knockout stage for the first time.
Their only two previous appearances, in 2002 and 2004, ended in huge disappointment.
This time around, they appear to be well prepared and better equipped.
While the Warriors have been labelled the sick men of the group, the players are dreaming big and hoping to do a Leicester in Gabon.
Part of the plan for the Kalisto Pasuwa-coached side is to begin their campaign by producing an upset against one of the pre-tournament favourites, Algeria, who will be led by Leicester’s superstar duo of Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani.
“We need to win the first match at all costs because we want to be on the front foot, which will boost our confidence for the remainder of the tournament. Our plan is to qualify for the knockout stage, but we will treat each game as it comes. We will focus on the here and now, which is to do well in the group stage,” Warriors captain, Willard Katsande, told the Kaizer Chiefs website.
With only two teams from each of the four groups qualifying for the quarter-finals, Algeria and Senegal are favourites to take Group B’s two spots, but Katsande reckons it would be folly to completely rule out the Warriors.
Senegal’s 2-1 shock defeat to South Africa in a World Cup qualifier in November last year, gives the Warriors skipper a reason for optimism.
“We are inspired by how Bafana Bafana handled some of the opponents we will be facing. We are motivated, even when we played Cameroon in a friendly match this week, we showed confidence. We can match them because we play a similar style to Bafana Bafana.”
With Pasuwa likely to start with mostly South Africa-based players in tomorrow’s match, including the Chiefs hardman himself, Khama Billiat, Tendai Ndoro and Kuda Mahachi, Katsande believes that connection will serve them well.
“We are on the same page in terms of understanding the modern game because we play together and against each other week in, week out. It makes it easy to play together because we know what to expect from each other.
The build-up to the tournament is one to forget for the team, as they were hit by financial problems, as the players struggled to agree terms with Zifa over match fees.
The players wanted an appearance fee of $5 000 per player for each match at the tournament, and $400 in foreign daily allowances. All seems to have been resolved, and the players are well focused on the job at hand.
“The feeling is great because we are living a dream to play in the Africa Cup of Nations. We can’t wait to play the first match. The nation is behind us. They expect us to make them happy. We will do our best,” Katsande said
Pasuwa has said he will not tinker much with the line-up that did duty in the qualifiers with the likes of goalkeeper, Tatenda Mukuruva, Costa Nhamoinesu, Katsande, Billiat, star man Knowledge Musona and target man, Nyasha Mushekwi almost assured of a starting place for the Warriors in tomorrow’s match.
Marvellous Nakamba is suspended for the match after accumulating two yellow cards in the qualifiers, and Danny Phiri could be a grateful beneficiary.
Kick-off is 6pm Zimbabwe time.
Warriors probable 11
T Mukuruva, O Bhasera, C Nhamoinesu, E Muroiwa, H Zvirekwi, W Katsande (c), D Phiri, K Mahachi, K Billiat, K Musona, N Mushekwi