Petros Kausiyo in ALEXANDRIA, Egypt—
BULLISH CAPS United plunge into their biggest football battle in history here tonight, with coach Lloyd Chitembwe saying he expects a titanic contest — pregnant with tactical duels — when they get their CAF Champions’ League Group B campaign underway against five-time champions Zamalek at the Borg El Arab Stadium. The match, which starts at 9pm, will be shown live on SuperSport 9.
The White Knights came close to winning the Champions League title last year, only to fall at the hands of eventual winners Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa, and the Cairo giants want to go one step better, this time around, and win their sixth crown as African football kings.
The other opening Group B clash features a Maghreb derby between USM Alger of Algeria and Libyan side Al Ahli Tripoli at the Stade 5 Juillet in Algiers and that game will start at 6pm.
Chitembwe and his men, who carry the hopes and expectations of Zimbabweans, were confident after completing the last leg of their journey with a 200km road trip from Cairo to the Mediterranean resort of Alexandria.
Although he is under no illusions about the tough task at hand against a Zamalek outfit that has made it their business to play Champions League football every year, a bullish Chitembwe heaped praises on his charges whom he described as a “special group of CAPS United players’’.
CAPS were buoyed by the rousing send-off they got from their fans who first sang and danced at Harare Main Post Office before following the team bus to the Harare International Airport.
Unlike previous Classes of CAPS United teams, Chitembwe’s group of 2016-2017 has created a special bond with their normally impatient and yet demanding fans who in the past also had a love-hate relationship with the coach.
And, against all odds — including limited financial resources — CAPS United powered their way to the domestic Premiership title and have shown their character and potential by knocking out cash-rich TP Mazembe as they stormed into the group stage of the Champions League.
Tonight, Chitembwe and his men will once again be put to the kind of test they faced in Lubumbashi.
“I have always said that this is a special group that has the potential to rewrite the history for this big club,’’ said Chitembwe.
“Naturally, there is pressure on us to want to continue to do well as we have been doing and we have to live with that kind of pressure.
“We just want to ensure that we take care of the supporters’ feelings and make them happy and so far so good for us. These supporters give us the kind of motivation and support any team would want when you go into battle.
“When a group of players performs the way these guys have performed, it is a sign of respect for the badge too. A coach for me is as good as his players and I am happy with the way they have managed the pressure.’’
Chitembwe said despite his charges being largely rookies, when it comes to Champions League football, he had been impressed by the quick manner in which they have been learning their ropes in the jungles of the African game.
“A guy like Phineas Bhamusi has responded well to the pressure that comes with this level of the game. It’s a learning phase for the kid and many others in the team,’’ the coach said.
‘’Of course, the approach to the game against Zamalek is too tactical for me to divulge it, but we know what we want and we know what we have to do to get what we want. We want to play with both mind and physique.
“There is no difference between the knock-out and the group stage and all we want is to compete away from home, but we have to fully concentrate and not make silly mistakes.’’
The former Zimbabwe international would have to make do without the experience of Tafadzwa Rusike in attack after the diminutive midfielder suffered a groin injury which has forced the coach not to risk him.
“Fire (Rusike) is definitely out of the game tomorrow. We don’t want to risk him because I believe he stands to give us a lot more for the future so for this game he will not participate.
“We have more important games coming up next week and we have a congested fixture that is ahead of us as soon as we return home,’’ Chitembwe said.
Rusike joins veteran striker Leonard Tsipa who has been a long-term groin injury casualty and remained home.
But Ronald Chitiyo, who has impressed playing just behind the main striker Abbas Amidu, Joel Ngodzo and Devon Chafa are fit to take to the big battle.
Zamalek have been enjoying a purple patch and this year they finally ended a long wait to beat Al Ahly in the Egyptian Super Cup by beating their old foes 3-1 on penalties.
Al Ahly had won on the four previous occasions that they met Zamalek in the Super Cup, but the White Knights turned the tables on neutral ground at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
“Zamalek are a team with great credentials and unbelievable resources, but in football it’s not all about credentials or resources, but what matters most is the right approach and your desire.
“I have been here before when we played ENNPI and football is a continuous learning process . . .”