Spencer Manguwa Special Correspondent
FOR the second time in a month, the Warriors blew a golden chance to seal their place at the 2019 AFCON finals with the latest setback being a demoralising first defeat, in this qualifying campaign, in Liberia on Sunday.
The striking irony of it all is that the game which this group of Warriors dominated the most, in all their five qualifiers, was the one they somehow lost as they fluffed a number of chances to win the battle comfortably.
The contest in Monrovia should have been over in the first half, but Tino Kadewere missed excellent chances while both captain Knowledge Musona and Ovidy Karuru were guilty of taking too long to pull the trigger when through on goal.
As usually happens in such matches, the Warriors were duly punished for their wastefulness when, moments after Kadewere missed another fine chance, their defence was caught napping and the Liberians scored the goal that made all the difference.
What this means is that a campaign that should have been over in Harare last month, had they beaten DRC in a game that ended in a controversial draw after Knox Mutizwa’s goal was somehow ruled out, will now be decided on the final day next March.
Again, as was the case on Sunday, all the Warriors require is, at least, just a point against Congo-Brazzaville — who have leaked five goals in their two away matches in this campaign — for them to cross the line and make it to Cameroon.
On paper that looks pretty easy, but nothing is ever easy in this game and the Warriors will be burdened by the pressure of delivering at home in a match they know a loss will have devastating consequences for their campaign.
With the head-to-head format being used in these qualifiers, a loss for the Warriors would be the end of their campaign because, although they will end with the same number of points as Congo-Brazzaville, the Central Africans will qualify by virtue of having a better record in matches between the two teams.
The other match in Kinshasa between the DRC and Liberia on the same day will not count for anything for the Warriors because all the possible results there — a win for the hosts, a win for the visitors or a draw — will not help our cause should we lose our final game.
A draw in that match in Kinshasa, coupled with a loss for the Warriors at home, means that three teams — Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia — will all end on eight points.
Such a scenario will mean that all results against the DRC, who would have finished last in the group, will be thrown away and the Warriors — who took four points from them — will suffer the most as they will plunge into bottom place of the three-team mini-group on four points.
Liberia will lose only two points from back-to-back draws against the DRC and they will have six points while Congo-Brazzaville will lose just a pint they picked against their neighbours and will have seven points.
In the event either Liberia or the DRC win that final match in Kinshasa, one of the two teams will join Congo-Brazzaville in Cameroon should the Central Africans win in Harare in March next year.
This means that the only two results, which will not have any disastrous consequences for the Warriors next March, are either a win or a draw for them in their home match against Congo-Brazzaville.
And if they play as well as they did on Sunday, on a very difficult surface, and create and convert half the number of chances that came their way, they should complete the assignment and ensure a happy ending to this campaign and a big outdoor party with their fans.
However, tough questions still have to be asked about why the Warriors fell in Liberia in a game they dominated and which, in a worst case scenario, should have seen them get the point they needed to qualify.
What was the reasoning behind the decision to bring back Willard Katsande so late in the campaign when his mere presence, because of his huge profile as a former captain of the team, had the potential of disturbing the dressing room?
Since the last AFCON finals in Gabon, this is a Warriors team that has belonged to Musona and Khama Billiat, with the two emerging as the leaders in the dressing room and on the pitch, and they had been doing a good job of it.
By bringing Katsande into the mix, it meant that the dressing room harmony was disturbed because another leader, who had not been there from the word go, was now part of the group and is it a coincidence that on Sunday we didn’t see a lot from both Musona and Billiat on the pitch?
Katsande might not have played that badly, but his mere presence had some negative effects because it also meant the coaches had to shift Marshall Munetsi, who has been the team’s unsung hero, into an unfamiliar right back position to accommodate the returning former skipper in midfield.
It meant the disruption of a rhythm and understanding that had been created in the first four games and Munetsi, given that he isn’t a natural right back, did not give the team that bite it needed down that right channel in a system where the fullbacks have to complement the attacks.
And, as fate would have it, it was the right channel of our defence that was opened for the goal which the Liberians got on Sunday which ensured we would not seal our qualification that day.
To suggest that we don’t have a natural right back replacement for the suspended Tendayi Darikwa in our football is something that defies logic and to throw someone who had not been part of the team straight into the starting XI had possible grim consequences.
That is why Mutizwa should have started ahead of Kadewere who is still easing his way back into the game after a lengthy time out after he suffered a horrific injury with the France-based forward being used as a possible substitute when we needed goals and the X-factor.
But even more damning was the decision to pull Kadewere out in the final 10 minutes when the Warriors were a goal down and in need of more men upfront to help their cause in search of a goal.
He might have missed chances but it’s to his credit that he was getting into the right areas and the coaches should have just reinforced the attack by bringing in more forwards to support him.
At that stage of the game we no longer needed defensive-minded players and Katsande should have been replaced with Kadewere remaining on the pitch when Evans Rusike and Rodwell Chinyengetere were brought in.
Billiat had an off day but a player of his quality should always be gambled on to produce a moment of magic and withdrawing him was another decision which, on reflection, didn’t help our cause.
It’s a measure of the grand expectations that these Warriors now carry that a narrow loss in Liberia can generate all the negativity that we have seen in the newspaper headlines that have followed the defeat in Monrovia.
On a weekend where Zambia failed, for the second AFCON in succession, to qualify and where Bafana Bafana are on the ropes, the Warriors remain top of their group and firmly in control of their destiny.
If we had been asked at the beginning of the campaign to just play one game, against Congo-Brazzaville, at home and get, at least, a draw to go to the AFCON finals, we would have celebrated it as a grand opportunity.
And that’s what it has come to and if we can’t get, at least, a point against Congo-Brazzaville at home then we aren’t good enough to be in Cameroon next year.