By Simba Mushati
Special to KweséESPN
It was another defiant defensive display which helped Zimbabwe over the finish line for a shock 2-1 win away to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Saturday’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Ronald Pfumbidzai and Knowledge Musona scored either side of the break to set the stage for a truly memorable triumph, with Yannick Bolasie’s injury-time response for the hosts proving inadequate to halt Zimbabwe’s party.
The result significantly boosts the Warriors’ chances of qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, as they opened up a three-point lead over the DRC atop Group G after the first matches.
For their part, Congo-Brazzaville have moved back into contention for a top-two finish after Thursday’s 3-1 win at home to Liberia brought them level with the DRC on four points.
Zimbabwe host the DRC in the return leg at the Nationals Sports Stadium on Tuesday evening, while Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia clash in Monrovia on the same day.
The Warriors had always been aware that, going toe to toe with the Leopards in their own backyard, they would run the risk of a savage mauling.
The gulf in class between the two squads meant that coach Sunday Chidzambwa’s best bet was always going to be a deep defensive line which would leave no room for the kind of through balls that would expose goalkeeper George Chigova.
The approach has its downside, as Zimbabwe spent much of the evening under persistent pressure, but the defence coped remarkably well, and a victory that had looked all but impossible in the run up was the ultimate reward.
The Warriors certainly answered some of the questions that had been hanging over them concerning the team’s fitness going into a contest away to one of the continent’s football powerhouses.
Central defender Teenage Hadebe and midfielder Marshal Munetsi had not played competitively since Zimbabwe’s 1-1 draw away to Congo-Brazzaville on September 9.
Captain Musona, too, has struggled to clock in the minutes since joining Belgian giants Anderlecht at the start of the campaign, while midfielder Marvelous Nakamba is just returning from injury at Club Brugge.
That mattered little in the end as the Zimbabweans managed to retain their defensive shape while making full use of the few opportunities which fell their way, ultimately holding on for what will certainly rank as one of their most famous results in Afcon history.
Chidzambwa had made a couple of changes to his squad, with Knox Mutizwa a surprise inclusion in the central-striking position.
Tanzania-based midfielder Tafadzwa Kutinyu was preferred in midfield ahead of Munetsi, while Nakamba slotted back in alongside Phiri in front of the defence in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
As expected, DRC did pour forward from the onset, using their technique to dominate the possession stakes and all the while threatening to overrun the visitors.
However, to their credit, there were few signs of panic among the Zimbabwe defenders, who grew in confidence the more the hosts struggled to create clear-cut chances.
There were some scares, with Hadebe getting caught out just after the half-hour mark as Cedric Bakambu got in behind only to shoot wide of Chigova’s far post.
The China-based striker also had a powerful close-range header acrobatically tipped over by Chigova in the opening stages.
On the whole though, the Zimbabwe defence somehow remained compact, disciplined and defiant even, with Hadebe and Wales-based partner Alec Mudimu proving impregnable in the centre.
There was adequate protection as well from midfielders Phiri and Nakamba.
DRC struggled to consistently penetrate out wide, where full-backs Pfumbidzai and diaspora-product Tendai Darikwa largely curtailed their offensive instinct to keep the opposition wingers at bay.
It was not entirely pretty, and there were a couple of passengers in Chidzambwa’s team.
Kutinyu and Mutizwa remained largely restrained, while Musona clearly lacked his usual sharpness despite the goal.
Consequently, the Zimbabwe forward line looked more like a collection of individuals rather than members of the same team.
However, Chidzambwa has never been a renowned enthusiast of the romantic side of the game and it was clearly his pragmatic approach which came out tops in the battle of Kinshasa.