By Nigel Matongorere
After 10 years of under-achieving, Zimbabwe are finally back among the big boys of continental football after qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations to be held in Gabon.
Under coach Callisto Pasuwa, the Warriors defied odds to come out top in Group L during the qualifiers ahead of Swaziland, Guinea and Malawi.
What made the qualification more spectacular is the fact Pasuwa’s side sealed their place in Gabon with a game to spare.
Zimbabwe scored 11 goals in the six matches in Group L at an average of 1.8 per game while only conceding four times.
Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat were the team’s top scorers with three goals each while Cuthbert Malajila found the net twice.
Costa Nhamoinesu and Evans Rusike found the net once each in the 4-0 win over Sihlangu at the Nation Sports Stadium.
In Gabon, Zimbabwe will be in Group B together with Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
Of the four teams, the Warriors scored the least goals in the qualifiers compared to the three other teams.
Algeria were ruthless in front of goal scoring 25 times during the qualifiers at an average 4.1 goals per game while only leaking five times.
The Lions of Teranga found the net 18 times at an average of 3 goals per game and their defence was only breached twice.
Tunisia conceded only three goals during the qualifiers while finding the net on 16 occasions at an average of 2.6 goals per game.
Looking at these stats and the personnel these three teams have upfront, it is pretty clear Pasuwa’s defence will have to be at its best in Gabon if the Warriors are to make an impact at the tournament.
The Warriors coach has kept faith in most of the players who featured for the team during the qualifiers.
The only notable addition in the provisional squad is the versatile Oscar Machapa from AS Vita in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Highlanders’ centre back Tendai Ndlovu together with Djurgardens IF forward Tino Kadewere.
Dating back to his days as Dynamos coach, Pasuwa has always been a firm believer of building his team around a strong defence.
The Warriors’ opponents are all big teams which rely on their size and obviously this will impact on Pasuwa’s mind when he selects his final squad today.
Looking at the players at his disposal and the kind of opposition Zimbabwe will face, what looks like the best formation to use is 4-3-3.
Tatenda Mkuruva has over the course of the last year cemented his place as the Warriors number 1 while being deputised by Bernard Donovan.
Takabva Mawaya and Nelson Chadya will have to battle it out for the other spot for the third goalkeeper travelling to Gabon.
Due to his height and agility, Costa Nhamoinesu will be the Warriors first choice centre back when the tournament starts with a clash against Algeria in Franceville on January 15.
The Sparta Prague player did not play in the opening match against Malawi before going onto to star in the remaining five matches.
Although he normally plays at left back for his club, Nhamoinesu will be integral to the Warriors’ defensive structure in Gabon.
The key will be for Pasuwa to finding a perfect partner for the Czech Republic-based defender as he has a choice between Elisha Muroiwa, Teenage Hadebe, Ndlovu, Liberty Chakoroma and Lawrence Mhlanga.
Due to his size, Muroiwa will probably be Pasuwa’s preferred second centre back while Onismor Bhasera comes in at left back with Machapa occupying the right side of defence.
In order to protect his defence and give his team dynamism in midfield, the best trio to use would be captain Willard Katsande, Danny Phiri and Marvellous Nakamba.
Phiri has the discipline to take on the anchoring role while Katsande and Nakamba will have the freedom to join the attack as they have the ability to provide the killer pass in the final third.
Upfront is where Pasuwa is spoilt for choice as he can go for a trident of Musona, Billiat and Mushekwi.
There are also many options like Tendai Ndoro, Matthew Rusike, Malajila and Kadewere.
Having last qualified for the tournament in 2006, the Warriors will be the under dogs in Group B but Pasuwa should not set out his team to solely play on the back foot while over respecting their opponents.
As the Daily News highlighted in the last three days, these teams might be African giants but they do have flaws and weaknesses which can be exploited.
Senegal might be the top ranked African country but they do have a tendency of losing their discipline at times as highlighted by their loss to South Africa in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
If the Warriors maintain their shape and disrupt midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye, they have a chance to win the game.
Tunisia are always a formidable side but in the last two years they have not played against any of the top Africa sides which gives the Warriors a chance to catch them cold in Gabon.
The Algerian squad is laden with some of the top African players, who are currently setting Europe alight but the Desert Foxes have had three different coaches in 2016 alone.
That chopping and changing at the top will probably disrupt the team’s rhythm with George Leekens coming into the job only two months ago.
In their previous two appearances at the Afcon finals, Zimbabwe failed to progress to the quarter-finals of the tournament.
This time around, Pasuwa has the players and with a bit of organisation coupled with luck, the Warriors can cause an upset in Gabon. Daily News