By Tadious Manyepo
Zimbabwe’s lack of depth was cruelly exposed by a determined Zambia, who rode on a double from their highly-rated forward, Patrick Daka, to end their 2021 AFCON qualifiers with a face-saving victory at the National Sports Stadium last night.
The visitors, who crashed out of the race for the Nations Cup finals after a dramatic 3-3 home draw against African champions Algeria in Lusaka last Thursday, went with their regular first-team players.
It was the same approach, which was taken by Djamel Belmadi, who went with his heavy hitters, led by Riyad Mahrez, as they crushed Botswana 5-0 last night to win the group by five points. In contrast, Warriors’ coach, Zdravko Logarusic, concerned about injuries and possible suspension of some of his key men, decided to throw in a number of his fringe players.
While the wisdom of his decision is understandable, the lack of quality, among those he called to provide cover for his regular troops, was glaring and what was supposed to be a party atmosphere, for the hosts, turned into a big yawn.
“It’s disappointing but I had to give some of these players a chance to prove themselves,” said Loga. “I really needed to assess some of them and I now have an idea of their strengths and weaknesses.
“It was a tough match and we have picked some positives from it though. The most important thing is that we managed to qualify for the AFCON and we take it from there.”
It quickly became very clear this was a different level for a number of those who were thrust into battle in what should concern Loga, who knows he still has a mountain to climb to find the right back-up players who can step in and deliver.
The Warriors were simply disjointed, as a unit, with their midfield lacking the cohesion, and life, needed to open the Zambian defence and feed their forwards, who were left feeding on crumbs.
The home defence, too, was suspect and was given a number of anxious moments by Daka, clearly the best player on the field, who showed once again why he has such a growing reputation in European football.
The two goals were a result of mistakes, with Alec Mudimu seeing the ball ricochet off him and into the path of Daka, who slotted the ball home in the first half.
Then, in the dying moments, Daka was left unmarked, given the freedom of the city, to connect the ball into the roof of the net, and end this game as a contest.
The 22-year-old Red Bull Salzburg striker came in for the final two AFCON qualifiers, last week, after reports emerged in England that he was wanted by a number of Premiership giants, with Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal leading the hunt for the signature.
A double against Liverpool in a pre-season friendly against the English champions is said to have alerted Jurgen Klopp to his potential but, according to Austrian news outlet Salzburger Nachriten, United, City and the Gunners have joined the queue to try and sign him in a deal with about US$23 million.
“To see our big brothers like (Pierre-Emerick) Aubameyang, (Mo) Salah and (Sadio) Mane, it’s something that gives me the dream that I can also make it. I can be like them. They are my inspiration, knowing that they also come from Africa,’’ Daka, who has been dubbed “The Next Samuel Etoó,’’ told BBC Sport.
“I think when people are making those kind of comparisons, it’s great, looking at the status of Sadio Mane, the kind of football he plays and the kind of person that he is.”
That profile will rise another notch today after Daka scored twice yesterday, taking his tally to four goals in the last two Nations Cup matches to help Chipolopolo beat the Warriors. He also scored, in his team’s 1-2 defeat by the Warriors in Lusaka in the reverse qualifier, taking his personal tally in those three games to five, just one short of the six goals which Zimbabwe scored in their entire campaign.
Zambian coach Milutin Sredejovic, who now appears to be focusing on the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, will be happy with how his team have reacted since he took over, with their loss in Botswana the only blemish to his record.
The Warriors, in contrast, will now go to Cameroon without having won a 2021 Nations Cup qualifier at home, the first time this has happened for them in all their successful quests for a place at Africa’s biggest football showcase. Loga is unlikely to read a lot into yesterday’s match but, given that every coach values good record, a return of just one win in four AFCON qualifiers, doesn’t look like a good report card, even for a gaffer who has qualified.
He knows the importance of a deep squad and many of his fringe players failed the test last night, struggling to find their rhythm, and appearing to be swallowed by the weight of the occasion. The expectation was that playing, without the pressure that comes with knowing that qualification was at stake, would free them to give the coach a reason to look at them, when he next names his first XI.
But, now and again, many of them failed to move into second gear, struggled to express themselves, and the end product was a poor show, even for a largely second string side, and the Zambians took full advantage.
Last Jesi’s highly-anticipated debut for the Warriors turned into a nightmare as he wasn’t given time to settle and start playing at the level he has shown for his Sudanese side, Al Hilal.
To single him out, though, would be unfair because many of the players, with the exception of skipper Ovidy Karuru, appeared to struggle yesterday and the team failed to create any meaningful chances. Instead, it was the Zambians who could have even scored more, with Enoch Mwepu guilty of missing a gilt-edged chance, with goalkeeper Martin Mapisa having committed himself to the wrong side.
Zimbabwe: M. Mapisa, T. Chimwemwe, O. Bhasera, A. Mudimu, V. Kamhuka, B. Ncube, R. Matova (T. Chinyahara 61st min), O. Karuru, L. Jesi, T. Rusike, E. Rusike (K. Mahachi 76th min)
Zambia: M. Chibwe (C. Chibwe, 46th min), B. Chepeshi, A. Chama, B. Sakala, R. Bwalya (P. Katema 60th min) L. Musonda (G. Lungu, 60th min) E. Mwepu (A. Shamende 90th min) R. Kabwe, C. Chama (S. Sautu 71st min) T. Mwape, P. Daka. The Herald