By Eddie Chikamhi
Warriors coach Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa believes his side has a strong reason to harbor high hopes and expectations at this year’s African Cup of Nations tournament after holding former African champions Nigeria to a goalless draw in an international football friendly match at the weekend.
The Warriors, who left for Egypt from Nigeria yesterday, desperately needed the test and they put up a decent performance on a slippery surface which made play difficult at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba on Saturday night.
Chidzambwa said the game gave his team some important insights in their preparations for this year’s edition of the AFCON tournament which starts on June 21 in Egypt.
Despite the tough playing conditions on a rainy evening in the Delta State of Nigeria on Saturday, the veteran coach was still pleased by his side’s performance in the back of a disappointing outing at the COSAFA Cup last week in South Africa where they failed to defend their regional title.
On Saturday in Asaba, Chidzambwa had the privilege to see 17 of his players in action against high quality Nigerians, who are almost in the same mould as the opposition they expect to face at the AFCON finals in less than two weeks’ time.
The veteran coach said the result against the Super Eagles was a huge confidence booster ahead of the AFCON challenge.
“I am very proud of my boys because they played to my instruction. You don’t stop a good team like Nigeria from scoring if you are not good yourself. This shows that we are going to the African Cup of Nations in Egypt with high hopes and expectations,” said Chidzambwa.
Zimbabwe are in Group A of the 2019 African Cup of Nations finals and they will begin their campaign against the host nation Egypt at the Cairo International Stadium on June 21.
They will later wrap up their group outings against Uganda and DR Congo on June 26 and June 30 respectively.
The Warriors are keen to make their mark at the tournament after failing to go beyond the group stages in their previous three appearances.
They left for Egypt late yesterday afternoon on the same charter flight with the Super Eagles for the final camp in the North African country.
Chidzambwa said that playing the Nigerians was useful for the Zimbabweans who picked up some priceless tips from the more experienced Super Eagles.
Goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda, who is expected to start against hosts Egypt in the tournament opener on June 21 in the absence of suspended George Chigova, was given a run.
Some of the players who missed last week’s COSAFA Cup like Kuda Mahachi, Danny Phiri and China-based forward Nyasha Mushekwi also had the feel of the competition against the Super Eagles on Saturday night.
Chidzambwa said the exposure was worthwhile. Nigeria, who are perennial campaigners at the finals of the continental tournament, are gunning for a fourth AFCON title.
They also used the match as part of their preparations for the upcoming edition with their coach Gernot Rohr giving a run to most of his foreign-based professionals led by the experienced midfielder and captain John Obi Mikel.
“I have learnt a lot from the Super Eagles, particularly the way they keep possession of the ball, they are good and it is good experience for us,” said Chidzambwa.
“The group is an excellent mix of players, and it is excellent for youthful players to make this showing. Through the match, you realise that they are skilled players and we have had the option to find some incredible abilities among them.”
His Super Eagles counterpart Rohr was also excited by the experience they got against the Warriors on Saturday night.
“All the players did well; there were some opportunities to score goals though none was converted.
“I am very happy about the match; it was a good test for us,” Rohr said.
Warriors coach Chidzambwa is still keen for another high profile friendly to have a further assessment of his players before the AFCON tournament kicks-off.
They had hoped to play Ghana, who are currently camped in Dubai, but it appears the deal has failed to materialise.
However, negotiations are taking place with Tanzania. The Warriors and the Taifa Stars have provisionally set June 16 as the date for the practice match. Tanzania are set to make a second appearance at the AFCON finals and were the first team to go to Egypt on Friday.
Speaking shortly before their departure from Nigeria yesterday, Warriors team manager Wellington Mpandare said the team was geared up for the AFCON finals.
Mpandare also appealed to the Government and the corporate world to expedite their fund-raising efforts so that the Warriors will be well-catered for in Egypt where they begin their final leg of preparations today.
“The morale is very high. Of course here and there we might have challenges but it’s all going on very well.
“Our plea is that, we know our President (Mnangagwa) set up a fund-raising committee that is mobilising resources for the Warriors, so (we appeal) if they can do their best to help the team because we really need the support from the Government.
“ZIFA alone can’t be able to do it. We are the ambassadors of the nation, we are carrying the national flag and we need everyone’s support so that the boys can just focus on playing without even having to sit down and negotiate or trying to boycott games.
“These players can deliver as long as they are happy, they can beat any team on any day. So all we need is to make sure that they are focused on playing football,” said Mpandare.
Warriors 2019 AFCON squad
Goalkeepers: George Chigova, Edmore Sibanda, Elvis Chipezeze
Defenders: Tendai Darikwa, Divine Lunga, Ronald Pfumbidzai, Alec Mudimu, Teenage Hadebe, Jimmy Dzingai.
Midfielders: Danny Phiri, Marshal Munetsi, Marvelous Nakamba, Ovidy Karuru, Khama Billiat, Kudakwashe Mahachi, Talent Chawapihwa, Tafadzwa Kutinyu, Thabani Kamusoko.
Strikers: Knowledge Musona (captain), Nyasha Mushekwi, Evans Rusike, Knox Mutizwa, Tinotenda Kadewere. The Herald