By Eddie Chikamhi
Zimbabwe Under-23 ……………. (2) 4
Botswana Under-23 …………….. (1) 1
(Zimbabwe win 6-3 on aggregate)
NOW, this is certainly the stuff that real Young Warriors are made of. Once upon a time, when the Warriors were real feared hunters, we always knew that teams like Botswana’s Zebras were easy prey.
The Warriors might have faded as a force, and the Zebras have grown in stature, but – at least – we still have a group of Young Warriors to remind us of a past when we used to be really good.
And, yesterday at Rufaro, the Young Warriors gave us real reason to smile and, crucially, to believe that our future, as a football force, might not be as bleak as some might suggest.
Zifa board member Benedict Moyo, who accompanied this team to Zambia where they won in an earlier round, came back saying that Zimbabwe might just have found players who can really make an impact in the Warriors colours.
At Rufaro yesterday, especially in that second half when Botswana could have been hit for double figures, this group of Young Warriors showed that Moyo might have been right.
It didn’t matter, did it, that they didn’t have Denver Mukamba and Achford Gutu in their team after the Dynamos duo were expelled in an ill-tempered first leg in Botswana?
Such is the depth in this team and when you consider that both Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiart are still Under-23 and Nyasha Mushekwi is just a year older, you can understand the reason for the Great Expectations.
The Zimbabwe Under-23 football team powered their way to the final round of the All-Africa Games qualifiers when they overcame a brave challenge from Botswana’s Young Zebras in an exciting match at Rufaro yesterday.
The Young Warriors, who had forced a 2-2 draw in the reverse leg played in Botswana two weeks ago, made a strong case and were propelled to a convincing victory courtesy of a brace from Simba Sithole and goals from Mathew Rusike and the impressive Abbas Amidu.
The visitors were made to chase shadows in the second half and had goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe to thank for a series of fine saves that gave the scoreline a bit of respectability and ensured it didn’t turn into something close to a rugby score.
The Botswana Under-23 team, however, had given a good account of themselves in the first half when they got their consolation through striker Motsholetsi Singele.
The Young Zebras forward scored from a rebound in the 14th minute to cancel out Sithole’s ninth minute goal.
Sithole, who also scored in Botswana, put the Young Warriors ahead when he pounced on a poorly headed back pass by defender Kaelo Kgaswane to beat advancing goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe with a low shot.
But the Young Zebras responded quickly when Ngele reacted fast to bury a rebound after goalkeeper Ariel Sibanda had spilled Mokagolodi Ngele’s low shot from a freekick taken from just outside the penalty area.
The goal seemed to unnerve the Zimbabweans who momentarily appeared to have lost their bearings as Botswana seized the opportunity to come back into contention.
Zimbabwe tried pumping long balls upfront, which were easily dealt with by their opponents.
Defenders Lincoln Zvasiya, Obey Mwerahari, Qadr Amini and Knowledge Machona played a big part as they quashed Botswana’s attacks with some solid and effective defending.
After taking the game to the hosts, they won another freekick just outside the box in the 29th minute but Zimbabwe were a relieved lot after their deadball expert Kgalabwe Moyana blasted his effort over.
But Zimbabwe somehow managed to rediscover their range and goalkeeper Dambe was forced to make a double save in the 35th minute when he blocked Rusike’s close range effort and again blocked Amidu’s full-bloodied effort in a crowded area.
The Young Warriors snatched the lead on the stroke of half time when the impressive Amidu, who is set to be a big star, scored the best goal of the afternoon with a scorching long-range grounder past the diving goalkeeper.
Bouyed by the lead, Zimbabwe came back stronger in the second half and were rewarded for their industry in the 57th minute when Rusike found the bottom corner from the edge of the box after receiving a pass from captain Amini.
Young Warriors’ coach Friday Phiri made a double substitution pulling out goal-scorers Rusike and Amidu in the 64th minute and their replacements Misheck Mburayi and Kiglon’s Ngoni Maviri did not disappoint as they added sting to Zimbabwe’s attack.
Young Zebras goalkeeper Dambe pulled off another good save when he stopped Joel Ngodzo’s shot in the 61st minute.
However Sithole hammered the final nail when he headed home Devon Chafa’s cross from the right flank.
Phiri was delighted by the team’s display.
“I must congratulate the youngsters because they played very well, especially upfront. They showed great character and maturity.
“Even our defence was very good and I am happy for them. It also shows the great depth that we have as a team,” said Phiri.
His opposite number Daniel Nare, who had hoped to defy odds and post a victory away from home, was disappointed. Nare blamed the team’s defeat to poor defending.
“Without taking anything away from Zimbabwe, I think they played very well in all departments.
“But I am a bit disappointed with our defence and the way we conceded.
“Maybe it’s stage fright on the part of our players but we were very disorganised defensively,” said Nare.
Zimbabwe will now face South Africa who beat Malawi 5-3 on aggregate.
The winner advances to the 10th edition of the All-Africa Games to be held from 3-18 September 2011 in Maputo, Mozambique.
A. Sibanda, O. Mwerahari, Q. Amini, L. Zvasiya, K. Machona, T. Mamvura, D. Chafa, M. Rusike (M. Mburayi 64th minute), A. Amidu (N. Maviri 64th minute), S. Sithole, J. Ngodzo (T. Mutero)
K. Dambe, L. Maswena (B. Moeng 72nd minute), S. Mathumo, K. Kgaswane, E. Motlhagodi, I. Paeye, O. Nato, K. Rasuping (N. Simanyane 62nd minute), M. Ngele, M. Sikele (K. Leteane 46th minute), G. Moyana.