By Petros Kausiyo and Eddie Chikamhi
ZIMBABWE Warriors stand on the threshold of securing yet another dance with the African Cup of Nations with a game to spare if they complete a rare double over plucky Democratic Republic of Congo at the National Sports Stadium tonight.
The high-profile Group G encounter kick-off at 7pm.
Sunday Chidzambwa’s men defied odds to leave the Leopards stunned following a 2-1 victory in Kinshasa on Saturday night.
The victory means the Warriors are the only unbeaten team in the group and their triumph on Saturday has excited the ZIFA leadership, with the association’s president Philip Chiyangwa yesterday boasting that the success over DRC was in line with his philosophy of trendsetting and making records.
Chiyangwa wants the Warriors to set a new record where they qualify with more than a game to spare.
“We are so proud of these Warriors and we are equally excited that they could set a new record for themselves by qualifying with two games to spare.
“When they qualified for the Gabon tournament, they did so with a game to spare and we now want them to go one better and seal their qualification tomorrow and it is even nicer to do so before the home fans.
“But we are not putting them under any undue pressure, we are a team of achievers and these Warriors are showing that with each assignment. Remember they are also record six-time COSAFA champions,” Chiyangwa said.
Veteran African football writer and SuperSport television commentator Mark Gleeson also backed the Warriors to succeed tonight and is already looking beyond the qualification phase.
Gleeson, an authoritative voice in African football who has travelled around the continent, believes the Warriors have the pedigree to even reach the semi-finals of the 2019 Nations Cup in Cameroon.
“A 2-1 win in Kinshasa, Wow! That’s huge. Few teams win there. I remember you guys (Zimbabwe) getting five there in the 90s.
“This Zimbabwe team has real potential . . . semi-finals at next CAN (AFCON). “They will come in under the radar and catch many by surprise,” said Gleeson.
Many people had given the Warriors little chance to secure a draw let alone a win away in DRC and with many still recalling how the senior team were mauled 5-0 after the bulk of their key players boycotted the trip to Kinshasa over Ebola fears.
But on Saturday they silenced the fancied Congolese who boasts of many Europe-based stars.
Chidzambwa who has seen a lot in the jungles of African football is however, not getting carried away with the victory, insisting that the stakes are even higher in this game.
While Zimbabwe could seal their place at the next year’s AFCON finals to be held in Cameroon with a win tonight, for the Leopards, it is all about survival.
The Leopards in particular will also be keeping their ears open to what will be happening between hosts Liberia and Congo-Brazzaville in the other Group G match in Libreville tonight.
Zimbabwe currently lead the pool with seven points while DRC and Congo-Brazzaville have four each. A win for Zimbabwe tonight would take the Warriors to 10 points and no matter what will happen in the last two rounds of matches, they will be guaranteed to finish in the top two, which secures them an automatic qualification.
Chidzambwa however, has sought to take one game at a time.
“Of course we beat them but I don’t think it’s going to be an easy game. Even the game we won was not easy. But what happened in the first leg is now water under the bridge. We have to focus on the coming assignment.
“We know we are playing a very strong side, which is highly ranked in Africa. If we are to get a good result we have to fight very hard. I know they are going to come at us but we are prepared for that,” said Chidzambwa.
Zimbabwe however, will be without their inspirational skipper Knowledge Musona who was expelled in the first leg after getting two yellow cards.
The 28-year old had just scored the insurance goal late in the second half with a beautifully worked-out goal after defender Ronald Pfumbidzai had given Zimbabwe the opener in 21st minute.
Musona’s absence will be felt as the Warriors skipper with four goals currently leads the charts with Nigerian Odion Ighalo.
Chidzambwa yesterday called up three players — Leeroy Mavhunga, Richard Hachiro and Rodwell Chinyengetere — as cover. But he is not likely to tinker much with the team that started in DRC.
The dice for the captain’s armband will fall between the big goalkeeper George Chigova and Ovidy Karuru.
Chidzambwa believes the home supporters will play a big role and urged Zimbabweans to throng the giant stadium despite the ticket price increases effected by ZIFA yesterday.
The price for cheapest ticket for the match was raised from $3 to $5 while bays 15-18 are now $10 and VIP $50. ZIFA board member finance Philemon Machana explained that they had to raise the entry fees to ensure they have some revenue needed to cater for the huge match expenses involved, some of which involves the scarce foreign currency.
The back to back games have left ZIFA with a $500 000 bill to cater for.
The Warriors are also expected to get inspiration from the victorious Cheetahs who were crowned Africa Cup Sevens Rugby champions in Tunisia over the weekend.
The rugby team arrives back home today and proceed to the National Sports Stadium to offer support to their compatriots, who are hunting for a fourth AFCON finals appearance.
“I would like to urge the supporters to rally behind the team all the way. We saw it in DRC, they cheered their players even if a mistake was made and because of that they really gave us a tough time. So we should expect the same here. Together we can get the desired results,” said Chidzambwa.
The Leopards who arrived in Harare early yesterday morning have also not made secret of their bid to bounce back.
Zimbabwe would march into their 80 000-seater cauldron, packed to the rafters, and steal a win.
Their coach Florent Ibenge, like all of this team, is aware of the arduous task that awaits his charges tonight but is confident they could turn the tide.
The Congolese technician told FOOT.CD that they will be seeking nothing short of a win in Zimbabwe.
“It’s better to win than to lose. But when you have lost, you do not want to lose the match that comes after. You just have to get back into the race and start again as a warrior.
“We lost a match but when you look at the statistics . . . you will see that it was just not our day. Now, we have to make Tuesday a day for us,” Ibenge said.
According to the match statistics, the Congolese dominated most of the proceedings despite the loss to Zimbabwe. They had 20 shots attempted, against eight for Zimbabwe. They took 14 corner kicks against two for Zimbabwe.
Yet they were outscored from the few chances that Zimbabwe got. Their chief striker Cedric Bakambu, who often punishes opponents even from half chances, was however, one of those who missed good scoring opportunities in both halves.
Bukambu, who is a target of top English side Tottenham Hotspur, yesterday wrote on social media that he wants to make amends.
“The Congolese we’ll give everything, until the end,” he wrote on social networks.
His sentiments were echoed by Germany-based forward Chadrac Akolo of Stuttgart who reckoned the Leopards were “surprised at home by the Zimbabweans.”
“We have to pull ourselves together and turn the tide on Tuesday in Harare. We need to review what we did not do well.
“We had possession but in today’s football, it does not bring back the points. We have to be aggressive offensively in front of this team because we have seen that there is space, “he told FOOT.CD.
DRC however, will have to do without left wing-back Arthur Masuaku who was dropped upon arrival in Harare because of injury.
The West Ham player got a knock in the first leg and could not train at the only training session held in DRC before the trip to Harare.