KHAMA BILLIAT scored a beauty, but his partner-in-destruction, Knowledge Musona, produced a horror miss — which could haunt him for years — as the Warriors only fished a point from the pond of the Cranes, on a night their swagger and powerful show deserved all the loot, here last night.
The iconic Cairo International Stadium was treated to probably the best game of this 2019 AFCON Cup finals, an open end-to-end stuff, as the two Group A rivals — whose fans have been staging a war on the cyberspaces of Twitter — fought long and hard and couldn’t be separated at the end.
Uganda would be the happier of the two teams, after somehow escaping with a point despite being exposed, now and again, by a rampant Warriors team that played with both style and penetration and would have been worthy winners of this contest even by a two or three-goal margin.
The Cranes have four points, from two matches, with a game against the Pharaohs to go while the Warriors have a point from as many games, and if they can beat the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, they will certainly make history by qualifying for the knockout stages of this tournament for the first time.
How is that possible, some will rightly ask?
Well, this tournament throws a lifeline to the four best third-placed teams, in the six groups, to accompany the top two in each group into the eliminators and four points for the Warriors might be enough, not only for second place, and an automatic slot in the Last 16, but at worst, one of the top third-place slots.
“I want to congratulate my players on their performance against Uganda,’’ Zimbabwe coach Sunday Chidzambwa said.
“Our performance was much better than against Egypt. We wasted a lot of chances, but the players really did well.’’
How they didn’t make it easier for themselves, by winning a game they thoroughly dominated once they fell behind to another avoidable goal, will be a talking point in their hotel room for long periods in the coming days because this was their day, their game and their destiny.
And, in the brutal post-mortem that followed soon after the referee blew to end this contest, all the focus fell on their skipper Musona.
The forward, whose goals powered these Warriors to this AFCON jamboree, whose leadership has shone like a beacon since he took over the captaincy and whose X-factor has usually been the difference between draws and victories, was the fall guy last night after a shocking miss that should have settled this contest.
Five minutes after the break, the Warriors opened the Cranes defence with a superb move that saw the ball being switched from the belly of the Ugandans’ rearguard to the right where it was then moved to Musona who found himself, alone, with a yawning goal pleading with him to just stroke the ball into its comforting arms.
It’s the kind of opportunities that, in street football, the attacking team is allowed to pick the ball up because it’s given they would have scored and the defending side can restart the game just to ensure time isn’t wasted.
But Musona clipped the ball with his right foot, and from close range, somehow directed it against the crossbar in an act so incredible it had to be seen, to be believed, had to be replayed on the television monitors to be confirmed as true, so close to fantasy it took some minutes to believe this was reality.
It’s a moment which, just like Wilfred Mugeyi’s horror miss in the first game against the Egyptians at AFCON 2004, is set to be talked about for years to come and, if the Warriors fail in their bid to make the knockout stages, this will feel brutal on the skipper who has served his country very well.
He should have scored in the first half, too, his control of the ball helping him fool two defenders before he turned and, as goalkeeper Denis Onyango went down, he chose the far post, his tilt backwards betraying his intentions and his effort going over the bar in the 22nd minute.
It should have been the equaliser for the Warriors who had fallen behind 11 minutes earlier to another poor goal they have conceded at this AFCON finals.
Left back Divine Lunga made a mess of possession, lost the ball and when it was threaded into his exposed channel, danger loomed for the Warriors, goalkeeper George Chigova made the block, but the ball spun into open space and Emmanuel Okwi reacted faster the Zimbabwean defence to stroke it home.
There will be another brutal assessment here — where was the cover for Lunga when he lost possession, could Chigova have done better with his block and where was the covering Zimbabwean defence when the loose ball needed to be cleared?
To their credit, the Warriors didn’t drop their heads and appeared to use the setback to inspire them, now and again marching into the Uganda defence with conviction and after Musona missed a fine chance, Billiat found himself free on the left side, but drilled his effort wide of goal.
The Zimbabweans kept attacking, the three-man attack coordinating better and their pace and movement down the wings giving Uganda problems, and Danny Phiri just missed his connection, with his head, after a ball was swung into the box from a dead ball by Musona.
The chances kept coming for the Warriors, with Ovidy Karuru having a good game and five minutes before the break, the equaliser their play deserved, finally arrived.
Musona chested the ball into the path of Karuru who galloped into acres of space down the channel, took him time as he waited for reinforcements, and then released a lovely cross for Billiat who sneaked in between his markers and caressed it with a deft touch to push it beyond his former Sundowns teammate Onyango.
Like they did against Egypt, Zimbabwe came after the break a better lot and Musona should have put them ahead in the 50th minute while substitute Evans Rusike thought he had scored, in the 68th minute, when he flicked the ball past Onyango and, time appeared to stand still, as it rolled towards goal.
However, the big goalkeeper recovered to scramble it from crossing the line.
But it could have been a disaster for the Warriors in the 74th minute when Lunga lost possession and Chigova was forced to make a save from a deflected clearance, the ball falling into the path of striker Patrick Kadou who volleyed over the bar from close range.
George Chigova, Tendayi Dariwa, Divine Lunga, Teenage Hadebe, Alec Mudimu, Danny Phiri, Thabani Kamusoko (Marshall Munetsi 64th min), Ovidy Karuru, Khama Billiat, Talent Chawapiwa (Evans Rusike 63rdmin), Knowledge Musona.