BY HENRY MHARA
ASTON Villa manager Dean Smith was forced to explain why Marvelous Nakamba does not play regularly in the team after yet another top-class act from the Warriors star as the Birmingham-based side snatched a 1-0 win away at Leeds United on Saturday evening.
Villa have not conceded a league goal this season with Nakamba on the pitch.
The 26-year-old, who joined the team last year for a reported fee of €12 million last year, has struggled to hold down a regular starting place at the high-flying Villa due to the Smith’s preferred midfield partnership of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn.
Saturday’s game was only his eighth appearance this term. Impressively though, Villa have not lost a league game in which he featured this season, winning seven and drawing one.
Post-Leeds match, journalists demanded to know why Smith continued to use Nakamba sparingly despite staggering statistics which show that the team always play well when he is on the pitch.
“We have been having a decent season and it’s been hard for him to get minutes, but he is one who has certainly trained very well and, when players aren’t performing, I knew I could put him in. He has never let us down when he has come in and today was another example of that,” he said.
The weekend match was Nakamba’s only fourth start this season as he was picked ahead of Luiz. Other matches that he started were against Burnley when they drew goalless, and Newcastle when Villa won 2-0 and at Arsenal when they won 1-0.
Surprisingly though, each time he impresses, he is back on the bench the following game.
Asked about his thoughts on Nakamba’s performance against Leeds, Smith said: “Yeah, it was a good performance. Positionally, I thought he got in good areas. He broke things up when he needed to. He could have been a bit tidier on the ball at times, but it was a tough surface out there to play on. A lot of players slipped but, defensively, he was really good with and without the ball. That is what you need from him when you come in. He has certainly not let us down. It’s four or five games now and we have not conceded a goal with him in our team. At the moment he is certainly earning his stripes.”
British newspaper Birmingham Mail also purred about Nakamba after the Leeds game.
“The plucky African plugged gaps incredibly well throughout as Leeds struggled to get past him on the counter. Nakamba was like an octopus, his legs (or tentacles!) just kept appearing from everywhere as he won back possession, much to the annoyance of Marcelo Bielsa’s men. Top, top work,” the newspaper commented.
Nakamba will be hoping to keep his position in the starting line-up when Villa travels to struggling Sheffield United on Wednesday night.
His outstanding performances will certainly excite Warriors coach Zdravko Logarušic ahead of Zimbabwe’s two Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifiers at the end of this month.
Nakamba was named in the 38-man squad announced last week by Logarušic for the trip to Botswana on March 25 for the penultimate qualifier. The team host Zambia three days later for their final Group H match.
His availability and that of other England-based Warriors stars who have been called up for the two assignments remains in doubt because of the tough COVID-19 regulations that have been enforced by the United Kingdom on travellers.
The island nation has put 33 countries which it deems high risk in terms of coronavirus variants under a red list and Zimbabwe is one of them.
UK authorities want all those returning from the red-listed countries to be quarantined for 10 days at an airport hotel on their return.
Most clubs said they were not comfortable with the requirement as that would mean their players would miss some league matches if they are quarantined on return. Fifa have said clubs are not obliged to release players.
Other players in the UK that are set to be affected are Tendai Darikwa, Jordan Zemura, David Moyo, the returning Admiral Muskwe and former Everton defender Brendan Galloway.
The United States and Spain are also enforcing similar measures and that also puts goalkeeper Tatenda Mukuruva and defender Tendai Jirira’s availability for the two clashes in doubt.
Another goalkeeper, Martin Mapisa, who is based in Spain and looking to make his first senior team appearance, could also fail to travel to Harare.
Zimbabwe are second in Group H with five points, behind log leaders and already qualified Algeria who have 10 points. With the group’s top two teams qualifying to the Afcon finals, the Warriors will book their place if they beat Botswana and Zambia fail to beat Algeria on the same day.
Botswana have four points while Zambia are on three.
- Follow Henry on Twitter @henrymhara