Eddie Chikamhi Senior Sports Reporter
ZIMBABWE’S Warriors might not have reached the Promised Land last night, but they put one foot into the 2019 African Cup of Nations finals after they were left to contend with a share of the spoils with the Democratic Republic of Congo at the National Sports Stadium last night.
The draw might have disappointed a home crowd that was ready to party into the night, but it remained vital for Sunday Chidzambwa’s men as they took a step closer to the Dreamland.
It might not have been the kind of showing they had anticipated to put on at home, but the Warriors still took the point and will fancy their chances of grinding another result on their next assignment away in Monrovia against Liberia next month.
The Warriors, who maintained their place at the top of Group G, got off to the best possible start to the game after midfield magician Khama Billiat put them ahead with under two minutes played.
But a defensive gaffe handed the visitors a lifeline when defender Teenage Hadebe turned the ball into his own nets under pressure to clear a dangerous cross into the box by Issama Mpeko.
Zimbabwe still lead the group with a three-point cushion after the group’s underdogs Liberia upset Congo Brazzaville 2-1 in Monrovia last night to take the two sides to four points apiece.
Chidzambwa told reporters after the game that although he had wanted maximum points to join the likes of Senegal, Madagascar, Tunisia, Egypt and hosts Cameroon who secured their places yesterday, he was happy that the Warriors are still in the right direction.
They picked four crucial points from back-to-back ties against Group G top seeds DRC.
Zimbabwe beat DRC at the weekend in Kinshasa and the draw last night took their tally to eight points, while DRC retained second place on five points.
“I think we all know that DRC are not a small team. They are a very big team and we did well to come away with three points in DRC.
“It doesn’t happen often there. They came here with a very good game plan but we had ours and, I can say, the plans drew. These things happen in football,” said Chidzambwa.
Zimbabwe, who were already missing captain Knowledge Musona and centre-back Alec Mudimu through suspensions, were forced to make an 11th hour change to their starting team after hard-working defensive midfielder Danny Phiri injured himself during warm up.
They suffered a further blow with 30 minutes played as goalkeeper George Chigova limped out injured having gone down twice in pain on the night.
But they had already settled their nerves with Billiat getting his second goal of the campaign just as some in the estimated 45 000 crowd were still trickling into the giant stadium.
Billiat was at the right position and his first touch, when he bundled the ball to the back of the nets from close range, torched wild celebrations in the stands after getting to the end of a nicely threaded pass by Talent Chawapihwa, who had done all the hard work down the right flank.
Despite the gate charges having been raised to $5 for the cheapest ticket to meet the huge bill of playing the back-to-back encounters, the Zimbabwean fans responded in a big way to the passionate plea by ZIFA to fill the giant stadium.
Zimbabwe thought they had doubled their lead in the 21st minute when Knox Mutizwa made an easy tap in following an exchange of passes between the captain of the day Ovidy Karuru and Billiat.
Instead, it was the visitors who equalised two minutes later when Hadebe miscued his effort in a desperate attempt to steer the ball away from one of the Congolese dangermen Yannick Bolasie who was prowling in the box.
DRC were still dangerous with the aerial balls and they used their big frames to their maximum advantage, bullying the home players at will but they could not get enough clear-cut chances.
Their fêted China-based forward Cedrick Bukambu almost stole it after Hadebe mistimed a bounce, but substitute goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda did well to save a low shot from Benik Afobe.
“We knew it was going to be a very difficult game for us, we knew they were going to come at us. I think the biggest problem we had today is injuries and suspensions. We missed three key players, but these things happen in football. Otherwise we were unlucky not to get three points.
“I thought the youngsters played well today. The young boy from FC Platinum (Kelvin Moyo) played well. It’s unfortunate we conceded an own goal, also these things happen in football, but I am happy with the performance of the boys.
“We look forward to getting a good result in the next match, which is Liberia. I just hope we are going to play well,” said Chidzambwa.
DRC coach Florent Ibenge was disappointed by the draw as he had hoped to avenge the home loss they suffered in the first leg in Kinshasa.
DRC will face neighbours Congo away in Brazzaville in their next assignment, while Zimbabwe travel to Liberia.
The Warriors will round off the campaign at home against Congo next year in March, with DRC hosting Liberia.
“The match wasn’t easy. We had come here to win. Unfortunately, they scored against us in the first minute and everything changed from there although we tried our best to come back into the game.
“In the second-half we tried our best to contain their attacks so that we could catch them on the counter-attack. We had some good chances, but we failed to capitalise although that could have won us three points.
“We failed to get the three points, but now we are going back home with a single point. So we are looking forward to winning our next game against Congo (Brazzaville),” said Ibenge.
Meanwhile, Madagascar won a place at the Africa Cup of Nations tournament for the first time when they triumphed 1-0 at home against Equatorial Guinea in Group A in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in an earlier game yesterday.
Thailand-based midfielder Njiva Rakotoharimalala scored the only goal four minutes before half-time.
Victory lifted the ‘‘Barea’’ (prized cattle) to 10 points from four games and beyond the reach of Equatorial Guinea and Sudan in a four-team mini-league from which the top two qualify.
It was the second 1-0 victory for the Malagasy over the Equatoguineans within four days after captain Faneva Ima Andriatsima scored the winner in West Africa last Saturday,
Madagascar became the first country apart from hosts Cameroon to secure a place at the biennial African football showcase, with the 2019 edition set for June 15 to July 13.
They qualified despite having to play a preliminary tie, won 4-2 on aggregate against Sao Tome e Principe, and being seeded fourth behind Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan.
Senegal later secured a place among the 24 finalists after edging pointless Sudan 1-0 in Khartoum last night.
Qualification for the Malagasy came after 18 failed attempts since 1970, with French coach Nicolas Dupuis drawing players from Europe, Asia and Africa.
The standard starting side includes four footballers based in France, one each in Algeria, Belgium, Egypt, Reunion, Saudi Arabia and Thailand, and one local.
Zimbabwe: G. Chigova (E. Sibanda, 30th minute), T. Darikwa, R. Pfumbidzai, T. Hadebe, K. Moyo, M. Munetsi, M. Nakamba, O. Karuru (R. Chinyengetere 78th minute), T. Chawapihwa (T. Dzvukamanja, 89th minute), K. Billiat, K. Mutizwa
DRC: A. Mossi, M. Issama, C. Luyindama, M. Tisserand, J. Ikoko, C. Mbemba, J. Maghoma (Mundele, 88th minute), F. Ngoma, Y. Bolasie, C. Bakambu (Meshack, 88th minute), B. Afobe (N. Kebano, 70th minute)